Democratic candidate for governor Jeff Greene has been an instigator in the primary. Brynn Anderson AP
Democratic candidate for governor Jeff Greene has been an instigator in the primary. Brynn Anderson AP

Politics

Greene plays the instigator as Florida’s Democratic primary for governor gets ugly

By David Smiley

dsmiley@miamiherald.com

August 10, 2018 07:10 PM

The relative kumbaya that was the Democratic primary for Florida governor is dead and buried, replaced by an acrimonious slug-fest among the three leading contenders — with South Florida billionaire Jeff Greene firmly in the middle.

After spending much of June and July promoting a softer image from the one he portrayed during his 2010 U.S. Senate run, Greene has pivoted since absentee ballots went out late last month and thrown his millions into attacks against Gwen Graham and Philip Levine.

Greene, who’s poured more than $18 million of his own money into his campaign, spent the past week blasting Graham on TV over her connection to the American Dream Miami mega-mall. On Friday he took aim at Levine, unleashing a commercial across the state that attacks the former Miami Beach mayor’s sea-rise platform by comparing his city’s vaunted flood pumps as open sewers.

“A report from the National Oceanic [and Atmospheric] Administration and The U accused Philip Levine of turning Biscayne Bay into a cesspool, with millions of gallons of human waste pouring into it every year from the faulty pump system Levine rushed to install, protecting his own Miami property,” a narrator says.

The ad stretches and misstates some of the facts, and led Miami Beach’s top administrator to issue a rushed memo Friday explaining that the city “does not have sanitary sewer outfalls to Biscayne Bay” and has created an extensive monitoring and testing program outside its stormwater outfalls.

But it’s nevertheless a biting reminder of what may be the most sordid chapter of Levine’s four-year tenure.

In 2016, researchers from Florida International University, NOAA, the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University published a small-scale study that found the city’s flood pumps — the first of about 70 to be installed as part of a city-wide $500 million flooding plan — were flushing tidal and rainwater into the bay with significantly elevated levels of enterococci, a bacteria measured to detect the presence of waste. Tidal flooding kept the contaminants from building up in the bay, but the scientists noted that the problem would become exacerbated as flooding increased with sea-level rise unless the water was treated or injected into the ground.

When the Miami Herald wrote about the study, Levine and the city commission demanded a retraction and publicly attacked the findings as “sloppy science combined with sloppy journalism.” Levine suggested that the results of the study were skewed because the city had declined to provide funding.

“A bullying egoist who attacks scientists and the press. Sound familiar?” Green’s commercials asks, in a rhetorical allusion to President Donald Trump.

Levine — who has strongly denied suggestions that he pushed to fast-track the city’s sea-rise projects in low-lying neighborhoods in order to protect his own real estate investments, including assets he and a partner sold last month for $68 million — quickly responded Friday.

His campaign began running its own statewide commercial highlighting Greene’s flattering statements about Trump following his election as president. Greene called Trump “a great guy” during a FOX Business interview in November 2016 and a few days later told Forbes that the country should get behind the president.

“A billionaire who bet against the middle class is attacking me and the city I love for fighting back against sea level rise. It’s time to set the record straight,” Levine tweeted along with a clip of the commercial.

A billionaire who bet against the middle class is attacking me and the city I love for fighting back against sea level rise.

It’s time to set the record straight. #flapol #sayfie pic.twitter.com/LTz3FhR9zW

— Mayor Philip Levine (@MayorLevine) August 10, 2018

The ad runs counter to efforts by Greene — who remains unsure if his Mar-a-Lago membership remains active — to promote himself as a vicious enemy of the president. The $18 million the Palm Beach developer has spent on his campaign exceeds the $15 million Levine has invested in his own.

“The millions he’s spending on TV ads can never hide what he said,” a narrator says of Greene. “Instead of taking Trump on, Jeff Greene embraced him, and that makes Trump and Greene one and the same.”

Levine, at one point, tweeted out a Broward New Times story about “Jeff Greene’s Party Yacht,” only to delete it. Levine’s senior political adviser, Christian Ulvert, said the deleted tweet was the result of “issues with our platform.” He also sent out a press release Friday with quotes from surrogates blasting Greene as abusive and demeaning toward women, after CBS 4 Miami reported on a police report filed in 2013 by a former cocktail waitress at Greene’s Omphoy Hotel in Palm Beach who said she had been “smacked on the arm” by Greene two weeks before.

The cocktail waitress told police she didn’t think Greene wanted to hurt her and called police to file a report on the advice of her attorney. She declined to press charges. Greene has said he “tapped” the woman on the arm after seeing customers who were upset over the level of music but unable to get staff’s attention.

Things didn’t stop there.

Greene later sent out a press release in which he defended his feelings toward Trump — whose mere mention can rile Democratic voters — by pointing to previous critical comments against the president. Greene also linked to a June 2017 radio interview Levine — a campaign surrogate for Hillary Clinton — gave FOX’s Brian Kilmeade in which he complimented Trump’s performance during a visit to Poland.

“So far,” Levine said to Kilmeade, “I think the president has done a very good job.”

The crossfire seems likely to hurt both candidates, whose overlapping profiles already appeared to be a problem in the primary. Polls show that Levine’s numbers have dropped since Green got into the race, and now the two independently wealthy South Florida businessmen are highlighting each others’ vulnerabilities and undercutting their campaigns to actively promote themselves as Trump’s toughest opponents.

“They’ve hit rock bottom and they’re starting to dig,” said Steven Vancore, a Democratic strategist who is not involved in the governor’s race.

With the two attacking each other, Graham, who is already ahead in the polls, would seem like the clear beneficiary of the political food fight. But Graham hasn’t exactly escaped unscathed.

Political mailer by the Jeff Green campaign

Greene has forced her to defend and explain her family business’ involvement in a massive mall in Miami-Dade County near the Everglades that has been criticized by environmentalists. And voters recently began receiving mail pieces that attacked Graham over her support of the Keystone Pipeline during her one term in Congress.

Greene — who just this week unloaded $16 million in stock in order to divest from oil and energy — says in the mailer that Graham “has consistently sided with Big Oil.” But Graham, who began running her own commercial this week criticizing Greene for attacking her family, has been on the offensive over Greene’s apparently former investment in Exxon Mobil, sending out statements from campaign surrogates attacking Greene as a profiteer off the oil industry.

Vancore, the pollster, said the back-and-forth seems most damaging for the Greene and Levine campaigns in the primary. But he doesn’t think it will become an issue for whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee.

“I don’t think it necessarily hurts them going into the general,” he said. “It sharpens their campaign. It sharpens their team. It sharpens their message..”

This article has been updated to include the sale of Levine’s Sunset Harbour properties last month for $68.75 million.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.