1. Opinion

Smith: Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is one to watch for Florida's 2018 governor's race


The completion of downtown Tampa's Riverwalk means Mayor Bob Buckhorn is yet again touting his city's post-recession renaissance, a message we'll hear constantly if he runs for governor in 2018 as widely expected.

Florida needs can-do, common sense leadership — the kind effective mayors provide -—not rigid ideology and hyper partisan arguing so common in Tallahassee and Washington, Buckhorn often says.

But Buckhorn's biggest obstacle to the governor's mansion may not be the economic fortunes of the Big Guava over the next couple of years or even the millions of campaign dollars already banked by his I-4 corridor neighbor, Agriculture Commissioner and likely Republican candidate Adam Putnam. His biggest obstacle may be the mayor of a much smaller city more commonly associated with spoiled brat celebs captured on camera by TMZ than for spawning strong statewide candidates.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, 54, met me the other day in the tony Sunset Harbour area of Miami Beach. Hipsters and beautiful people streamed in and out of nearby yoga and fitness studios as the roar of road construction and paving work around Purdy Avenue and 20th Street nearly drowned us out as we walked and talked.

"Hey guys, looks great," he said, chatting with one of several sets of road contractors we passed. "We've just got to move, move, move."

The mayor, who won office in 2013 promising "to fix what's broken and make things work," nodded to the stretch of road by Biscayne Boulevard that a few years ago was three feet lower than it is today.

"This used to be constantly underwater," he said of Purdy Avenue, where a TV ad for his first mayoral campaign in 2013 had shown him and his boxer, Earl, kayaking and promising finally to do something about Miami Beach's steadily growing flooding crisis.

"I like to joke that some people get swept into office. I got kind of floated into office," Levine told me.

He and fellow leaders of this community at ground zero for rising sea levels have been earning international attention lately for their ambitious, $400 million campaign to prevent Miami Beach from becoming another Venice, Italy. It included building dozens of pumping stations, raising roads and sea walls, and upgrading the stormwater system — and raising residents' stormwater fees by about $7 a month.

"The last thing you want to do as an elected official is raise people's fees for anything, but I said, 'We have a choice. You either want to live in Atlantis or you want to live in Miami Beach. Tell me what you want to do,' " Levine recounted. "And no one likes traffic, no one likes construction, no one likes seeing their roads dug up, — this place really looked like a war zone for awhile — but we had a choice: You either fortify and make your city resilient or you keep dealing with the flooding. And we didn't want to deal with the flooding because it was getting worse and worse and worse."

Levine in many respects sounds like Buckhorn. They share pro-business and populist instincts. Both come from the more centrist Bill Clinton wing of the Democratic party, and are longtime supporters of the Clintons.

But Levine happens to be close friends with the former president, and has travelled with him across the world. And where Buckhorn, 57, has spent most of his career working in government and politics, Levine is a product of the private sector.

In 1990, he parlayed a gig as a cruise ship ports lecturer dolling out shopping and recreation tips to passengers into a lucrative media firm, OnBoard Media, producing cruise ship TV programs, magazines and port marketing, and ultimately a duty-free shopping and media firm with revenues of $400 million. He sold it in 2000 to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) for what Levine described as "north of $100 million."

"He has an insider's savvy with an outsider's perspective. And the outsiders are doing very well right now in politics," said Adam Goodman, a Republican media consultant in Tampa who has worked on Levine's Miami Beach campaign and does not rule out supporting him if he runs for governor in 2018. "If he were to run for governor, he would have a lot of appeal across all political and philosophical lines. He's not a party apparatchik," Goodman said.

Last week, Levine and the Miami Beach City Commission voted to raise the minimum wage within the city, challenging a recent state law forbidding that.

"We continue to hear stories from our residents who are unable to live and work in Miami Beach because of the high costs of rent, transportation and basic living costs," Levine said in statement. "But today, we start addressing this growing problem through higher wages by establishing a citywide minimum living wage."

Miami Beach does not have a strong mayor form of government, with a city manager running day-to-day operations and the mayor having just one of seven votes. But allies and critics alike tend to describe him as a strong mayor largely setting the agenda.

"That's the beauty of strong leadership. Because Philip is willing to act the role of the leader, the people will follow him," said Ricky Arriola, a city commissioner who thinks Levine would be a formidable statewide candidate. "I think a lot of people appreciate that CEO personality today, where you're not predisposed to wait around for red tape and used to layers and layers of bureaucracy and excuse making."

That media mogul CEO personality seems also to make Levine hostile to reporters and critical coverage. He has had a rocky relationship with Miami Herald reporters covering him.

In Miami Beach, where elections typically draw about 10,000 voters and candidates tend to pay for a few mailers and perhaps some cable TV spots, Levine spent $2 million. His campaign ads aired during Miami Heat playoffs. Bill Clinton campaigned for him.

"He has sort of become a de facto strong mayor because he didn't only fund his own campaign; he funded a slate of candidates to run with him. He didn't need to be a consensus builder because he brought in a block with him," said former city commissioner Michael Gongora, one of the candidates Levine defeated in his first campaign.

Gov. Rick Scott, another wealthy CEO political newcomer, won two statewide elections. The hard-charging Donald Trump defied the countless doubters to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Democrats looking at the governor's race in 2018 include first-term U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Broward and Buckhhorn from Tampa.

If recent trends hold, the impatient former CEO holding back the rising flood waters in South Florida may be the one to watch.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.