Philip Levine appears headed for recount in Miami Beach mayoral race

Miami Beach’s mayoral election appears to be headed to an automatic recount — by a very narrow margin.

With all precincts reported, businessman Philip Levine won 50.48 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. But he needed 50.5 percent to avoid a recount.

Provisional ballots must still be counted and the results must be certified. That won’t happen until Friday, said Levine’s attorney, JC Planas. If Levine’s tally is still below 50.5 percent, then the recount will commence, Planas said.

Depending on the result of the recount, Levine could end up the outright winner, or could be forced to a runoff with his closest opponent, current Commissioner Michael Góngora. It’s also possible a second recount will be needed, depending on how close Levine is to an outright majority.

Levine was jubilant Tuesday night.

"This is the most humbling night of my entire life," Levine told a crowd of supporters Tuesday night.

Góngora sounded like he was conceding Tuesday night, although he said he wasn’t sure.

"I’m not going anywhere, people. I can’t tell you what the next step will be, but I can tell you Michael Góngora will be there," he told his supporters.

In another election day twist, Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, a popular local pol who has served the city for more than a decade, couldn’t manage an outright win against an inexperienced and little-known challenger: retired banker Joy Malakoff. Bower ran for Commission Group III after being term limited as mayor. She and Malakoff appear headed to a Nov. 19 runoff.

In another highly anticipated vote, a ballot question that could make it harder for the city to go through with a billion-dollar renovation of its convention center was handily approved by voters. So was a straw ballot measure to approve the use of medical marijuana in the city.

In Commission Group I, Realtor Micky Steinberg and retiree Elsa Urquiza will likely face each other in a second round of voting.

In Group II, Commissioner Jorge Exposito also likely will face a runoff against criminal defense attorney Michael Grieco.

Voter turnout was light on the sandbar of 90,000 residents. There are about 45,000 registered voters in the city. Many of those who did show up were motivated to vote by a high-profile, nastily fought mayoral race. The post was wide-open this year, since Bower was term-limited.

Levine has never held office before, but seemed to have an unlimited supply of campaign cash. A self-made multimillionaire with businesses in the cruise ship industry, he spent more than a million bucks financing his own campaign. Tuesday night at his campaign headquarters, hundreds of people danced, ate and drank before a projector that showed election results. An emcee told people to get on the dance floor and put their hands up in the air.

Auske Ruvokaite, 48, was one of the dancers who threw her hands around with a smile.

Ruvokaite said she is happy because the beach will finally see an honest mayor.

“He’s a straight-shooter,” said Ruvokaite, who has lived on the beach for 7 years since moving from Lithuania.

On the campaign trail, Levine was attacked for his sparse voting record, ties to developers and for his wealth, which he earned by creating media businesses in the cruise ship industry. After spending more than $1 million of his own money to win the seat, his opponents have accused him of trying to buy the election.

Levine touted his business acumen, and his door-to-door campaign. He qualified to run for mayor by collecting signatures for a petition, instead of paying a fee. A big-time Democratic fundraiser, Levine counts former President Bill Clinton among his friends. Clinton made a stop in Miami Beach to endorse Levine’s run, his first for public office.

Góngora was slammed on the campaign trail for his ties to a shadowy election group that Levine’s camp says is operating illegally. His opponents have also been quick to blame him for the city’s recent corruption issues. He positioned himself as the only mayoral candidate with experience, and that he and the commission have addressed the city’s most pressing issues.

“He’s been a commissioner for a long time so he knows what the city needs and is willing to fix the problems it’s been having,” said mid-Beach resident Irma Calderon, 56.

Berke fought to be taken seriously as a candidate after his 2011 run for mayor, when he declared himself a member of the “after party,” downed shots of alcohol on camera and interrupted a City Commission meeting with a saxophone player. This year, he ran a campaign free of punch lines — though his election ads were comical. One featured Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in The Hat, except the faces of Berke’s opponents were superimposed onto those of the little blue-haired creatures, who were renamed Liar 1 and Liar 2.

Jokes aside, his campaign attracted the attention of Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson with Berke’s idea to solve traffic problems by stringing cable cars across Biscayne Bay.

His message resonates with 84-year old Stanley Beck, a mid-Beach resident who voted for Berke.

“He just seemed like a new person to me, and I liked his ad,” Beck said. “He’s only looking to serve us.”

The city’s ambitious plans to overhaul its convention center district appear to have hit another hurdle, with the passage of a charter amendment that now requires a super-majority of voters to approve any leases on the site. Previously, only a simple-majority was needed.

The city plans to lease land within the 52-acre convention center campus to a private developer. The developer would renovate Miami Beach’s convention center at the city’s cost, and build a hotel, shops and restaurants at the developer’s own cost.

Candidates who have served on the Beach commission have been generally supportive of the plan, while many other candidates have questioned the size, scope and price tag of the project. If a mostly new commission is elected in the runoff later this month, the project could be significantly altered.

North Beach resident Joan Dengler voted in favor of the ballot measure, and described the project in the same words Levine has used on the campaign trail.

“It looked to me like they were going to turn it into a mini Disney World,” she said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

Miami Herald writers Brittny Valdes and Margaux Herrera contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald