It’s not easy to roll out a major political campaign with substance and style. The best one in recent memory was Jeb Bush’s presidential launch in 2015 at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus. Everything clicked for Jeb that day, even his nerdy glasses and khaki slacks. That first moment in the sun, however, turned out to be the highpoint of his campaign.
Philip Levine wore a sport coat (buttoned up tight), tie, jeans, and white Adidas sneakers for his big announcement for governor in Wynwood last week. He looked very much like one of the Silicon Valley innovators he so admires. The warehouse he owns was decorated with big, colorful murals of other people he admires: John F. Kennedy, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King. He paid tribute to them as his political and philosophical inspirations. And why not? As the poet Robert Graves once wrote, “I think continually of those who were truly great … who left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Levine’s campaign launch was nearly flawless and carefully produced political theater. Almost too perfect. A few hundred older folks from Miami Beach were bused in (with a promise of free food) for window dressing. The VIP seats were filled with a few dozen well-known and well-heeled business and civic leaders. A DJ spun some nice tunes. There was an ethnically, racially, and religiously balanced assortment of warm-up speakers. Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, and former Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas all praised Levine as the right man at the right time. And he was, inevitably, brought up to the stage as “the next governor of Florida.” I heard Al Gore once remark that he “used to be the next president of the United States.”
Does Levine stand a realistic chance of winning the Democratic nomination, much less becoming Florida’s next governor? Yes, but he’s a long shot. Four years as the mayor of Miami Beach — a middle-sized city where the city manager makes day-to-day administrative decisions — isn’t much preparation for running a state as large and complex as Florida. Levine’s temperament may also be questioned — he refused to speak to a Miami Herald reporter assigned to his first mayoral campaign because he thought she was unfair to him. He can be abrupt, even rude with constituents who disagree with him.. He once helped underwrite a full-page ad in the Herald that called me “sleazy” for criticizing his involvement in a PAC that solicited money from city vendors and contractors. We long ago settled our differences.
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Levine made millions working with the cruise industry and he’s counting on his many business, personal, and political connections (he’s close to the Clintons) for campaign support. He’s also counting on the nearly 5 million registered Democrats in South Florida to consider him their hometown candidate. Don’t count on it.
Levine says he’s willing to spend up to $20 million of his personal wealth to win, which will be needed because he’s not known outside South Florida. He’s not even a household name here.
So what’s his core message? “We’re pro-people, pro-business, and we’re all about giving people the opportunity to live the American dream,” he told me at his campaign launch. Ugh, talk about a pre-rehearsed sound bite.
His speech, in fact, sounded like the product of multiple focus groups with carefully crafted appeals to every voting constituency. Levine said he favors more money for teachers and public schools, a living wage of at least $15 an hour, equal rights for gay people, protecting the environment, and social justice for everyone. In other words, he’s promising poulet in every pot and an electric plug-in in every garage.
These are worthwhile goals, but there’s nothing in them that sets him apart from the other Democrats already in the race. When I asked Levine sets him apart he said, without missing a beat: “I’m not running against anyone, I’m just running with my own message and I think people are looking for someone with a record of actually getting things done.”
Bingo, there’s your Levine campaign mantra: “Getting things done.” He did make progress in Miami Beach on combatting sea-level rise. “It’s time to address climate change,”’ he said in his prepared remarks “by changing Tallahassee’s climate of denial.” A nice zinger aimed at Gov. Rick Scott. Levine’s speech was replete with these clever, if contrived, lines. It felt consultant-driven and had the fingerprints of several writers.
We need to hear Levine’s authentic voice. His campaign kick-off was a controlled setting where he owned the microphone. Let’s see what happens when he has to share it with his fellow Democrats.