Miami-Dade County

Former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine loses Democratic primary for governor

“ Gillum is going to lead the way ,” gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine gives concession speech

Gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine addresses watch party and gives support for Mayor Andrew Gillum on August 28, 2018 at his election night watch party in Wynwood.
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Gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine addresses watch party and gives support for Mayor Andrew Gillum on August 28, 2018 at his election night watch party in Wynwood.

Former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine’s bid for governor ended with Tuesday’s primary election, when Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum unexpectedly emerged from a competitive field of Democrats to secure the nomination in a historic upset.

Levine, the 56-year-old cruise industry businessman, far outspent Gillum, pouring $29 million of his own cash — about one-fifth of his total net worth — into his bid to be the Democratic candidate for Florida’s highest elected office. He launched his campaign as he completed a four-year tenure as Miami Beach mayor in November 2017.

By contrast, Gillum’s campaign spent about $2.5 million. In the end, the money didn’t matter. With about 20 percent of the vote, Levine came in third place behind Gillum and former congresswoman Gwen Graham. Levine fared best in five counties in southwest Florida, but he didn’t win the home county they share. Gillum, who was born in Richmond Heights, outstripped Levine by about 9,000 votes in Miami-Dade.

Apart from the gobs of cash he was willing to invest in his campaign, Levine was long considered a top primary candidate who touted issues that would garner attention across the state — preparedness for impending sea level rise, teacher pay and a living wage for workers. At each turn, he pointed to his record as mayor of Miami Beach — even if it was a complicated legacy that seemingly attracted as much scrutiny as it did praise.

Levine’s pair of two-year terms as mayor were marked by major anti-drainage projects in the face of rising tides, a reformed police department and healthy municipal budgets. But he also forged a reputation for governing with sharp elbows, having thin skin in the face of criticism and for pushed interests that benefited his assets and political ambitions.

On Tuesday night, Levine attributed the loss to voters simply responding to Gillum’s message more.

“I think the people of Florida truly, really wanted Andrew Gillum,” he said. “They were excited by him, motivated by him, inspired by him, and their voices were heard.”

The entry of billionaire real estate tycoon Jeff Greene into the primary may have eaten into Levine’s chances for victory. Greene took aim at Levine during the campaign with attack ads, which appeared to give Gillum and Graham more room at the top of the field.

The campaign ended Tuesday where it began, in a Miami warehouse situated in the trendy Wynwood arts district, a headquarters decorated to match the lack of subtlety that has characterized his short career as a politician. The walls are painted with tall murals of his historical heroes — John F. Kennedy, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez — luminaries who framed an election party that attracted several dozen bigwigs and residents from Miami Beach.

Speaking as the last precincts reported and it became clear Gillum would win, Levine’s signature bravado gave way to a humbler tone as he acknowledged defeat. He pledged to throw his full support behind the Democratic nominee, with whom he had just spoken on the phone.

“I said, ‘Andrew, you made history, and I can tell you that myself personally and everything I got is going to be behind you to make sure you are the next governor of the state of Florida,’” he told the crowd, eliciting applause.

It became increasingly clear as returns came in around the state that Levine was firmly in third place, prompting disappointing looks from campaign staffers as supporters began to speak of his campaign in the past tense by around 8:30 p.m.

“I’ve won races. I’ve lost races. The former is more fun,” said Jimmy Morales, former Miami-Dade County commissioner and Miami Beach’s current city manager. He was the top administrator in the city’s government during Levine’s tenure.

Levine’s mother, Diane Ziman, offered an honest take on the results.

“I’m selfishly happy we’ll get him back. He can be with his family, his wife and his children,” she said. “He’s got a big business. He’s fine.”

Levine later echoed his mother, telling the Herald that he has no immediate plans to remain in politics, other than to back Gillum through a contribution to his campaign and fundraising. Without giving specifics, he cited opportunities related to his cruise media business that he wants to explore.

Tuesday marked Levine’s first electoral defeat since entering politics just five years ago, when he was ushered into the mayor’s office by Miami Beach voters. In that race, he spent $2.9 million to edge out a sitting city commissioner in a hard-fought campaign.

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