Miami-Dade County

As mayors gather, Miami Beach’s Phil Levine basks in climate change spotlight

New York mayor looks at Miami Beach’s defenses against sea level rise

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tour Sunset Harbor to view Miami Beach's efforts against sea-level rise.
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Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tour Sunset Harbor to view Miami Beach's efforts against sea-level rise.

On the first day of the national mayors conference he lobbied hard to host, Philip Levine stepped to the stage of a newsmakers breakfast for a chat with Politico writer Marc Caputo.

“I don’t know if most folks know,” Caputo said as Levine took his seat, “but Miami Beach is probably doomed.”

As he inches closer to a run for governor, Levine sees this weekend’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors as a chance to bask in the climate change spotlight — the perils it brings to his city and how his administration has tackled it.

“We have a mission,” Levine said at the breakfast meeting, dismissing pessimism about Miami Beach’s future as the type of doom-and-gloom that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “And the whole world is watching.”

With big-city mayors emerging as the most vocal dissenters in President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate-change accord, this weekend’s convention promised to be a sounding board for the Democrat-heavy conference to ring the alarm on sea-level rise and other consequences of a warming planet.

But with Miami Beach playing host, Levine wants to use the event to solidify the resort city’s position as the “poster child” for sea-level rise and him as the champion fighting it.

The afternoon had Levine play tour guide to the most prominent mayor in the nation, New York’s Bill de Blasio, who inspected the pump station and raised streets that Miami Beach funded as part of a nearly $500 million retrofit to address rising sea levels.

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Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hold a sign for Cities4Climate following their tour of Sunset Harbor to view Miami Beach’s efforts against sea-level rise. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

“Miami Beach is facing, literally, an existential crisis,” de Blasio told reporters during a seaside press conference. “This solution, which is so impressive to see, was primarily a local solution. There’s no plan for protecting America’s coastal areas.”

His remarks reflected a theme throughout the conference’s first day, as mayors described themselves as the elected officials tasked with solving real-life problems while Washington largely turns its backs on cities’ needs.

“The mayors standing here are the tip of the spear,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2020. “We run to the fire.”

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The 85th annual meeting of The United States Conference of Mayors, taking place at the Fontainbleau kicked off with a press conference on Friday. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine speaks, surrounded by mayors from across the country. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Mayors are actually the minority at the annual summer meeting of the conference, which also sells memberships to businesses — including companies that do business with local governments. While mingling is encouraged during the nightly parties, which are closed to press, the daily luncheons feature “Mayors Only” tables that force lobbyists and corporate executives to eat amongst themselves.

When Levine and de Blasio toured Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood, they and their entourages were ferried there by an electric bus provided by New Flyer, one of the top sellers of buses to local governments. Also aboard: Christian Ulvert, Levine’s campaign consultant as the mayor considers a potential gubernatorial bid in 2018.

Beefed-up pumps have brought Levine criticism for flushing human waste into Biscayne Bay at a level that raised alarms for scientists, while higher streets have caused some headaches for lower-lying buildings. But with pumps largely sparing Miami Beach from the floods that characterized previous “king tide” days, Levine is touting the public works system as an example of good government fixing problems.

Though he’s been a top donor for the Democratic Party and is credited with recruiting former President Bill Clinton to speak at the conference Saturday, Levine continues to stoke speculation he may run for Florida governor as an independent.

“The ocean is not Republican. It is not Democratic,” he said during his tour with de Blasio. “It just knows how to rise.”

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