Miami Beach

Miami Beach mayor will not run for third term. Next move? Maybe governor

Mayor Philip Levine speaks at the City of Miami Beach Commission meeting on Wednesday.
Mayor Philip Levine speaks at the City of Miami Beach Commission meeting on Wednesday. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has announced he will not run for a third term, and is teeing up a possible run for governor in 2018.

Rumors have long circulated that Levine, a Democrat who was a highly visible surrogate for Hillary Clinton, has his sights set on Tallahassee. A wealthy businessman who made his fortune starting media companies in the cruise industry, Levine first entered politics when he was elected mayor in November 2013. He was reelected to a second two-year term in 2015.

On Thursday morning, he released a video announcement rattling off highlights from his two terms as Beach mayor and stating that he will not run in this year’s mayoral election.

“As an entrepreneur who likes to get things done, I also believe in the power of fresh ideas and fresh leadership,” Levine says. “To that end, this will be my last term as the mayor of Miami Beach.”

Levine stopped short of announcing a gubernatorial run, but said he will explore “ways of how best to serve both my community and my state” — a transition into what walks and talks like a soft launch to a statewide campaign. He makes nonspecific statements about Florida’s economy, the environment and education.

Levine told the Miami Herald he plans to go around Florida on a listening and learning tour this spring before making a final decision.

“Over the coming months, I plan to travel the state to listen, learn and ‘find Florida,’” he said. “I am actually reading T.D. Allman’s book ‘Finding Florida.’ I will make my decision in the spring.”

Four years as mayor

Levine published two video messages Thursday on YouTube. One is a brief three-minute announcement. The other is a 20-minute walk-through of his time as mayor of Miami-Dade’s fourth most populous city that casts a positive light on his initiatives: higher, drier streets amid high tides; a reformed police department; the creation of a free trolley system; the passage of a citywide minimum wage ordinance, and the beginning of construction on an expanded Miami Beach Convention Center.

Levine’s tenure has been marked by a robust budget and popular initiatives that he is adept at marketing through social media and paid advertisements both locally and in other states, but the first-time politician has often been thin-skinned and stubbornly resistant to criticism, and he has not been immune to public embarrassment.

Miami Beach embarked on a $500 million plan to beef up infrastructure on the low-lying island in the face of sea level rise. The plan has seen the raising of city streets and installation of anti-flooding pumps that force water out of the drainage system and into Biscayne Bay.

But the ongoing work, while successful at keeping some of the city’s lowest-lying streets dry during increasingly higher tides, has had unsavory side effects. In May 2016, scientists monitoring the water quality of Biscayne Bay as pumps worked during high tides found that the expelled water carried levels of bacteria found in human waste that exceed state limits.

The research raised concerns because of grim projections of more frequent, more severe high tides in the future. When one of those scientists spoke up about the findings, Levine publicly attacked his credibility. Levine immediately went on the defensive, blasting the research, grilling the scientists in a public meeting and the criticizing the media that reported on it.

On Thursday, Levine said in an interview that public office has forced him to grow a thicker skin and accept criticism more.

“I am who I am. I’m a fighter. I’m aggressive. But I’m also a listener,” he said. “I don’t need to be right. I just need to get it right. I’ve learned to listen more.”

I would prefer him to run for reelection and keep the momentum of the city going.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola

Indisputable is the mayor’s ability to thrust Miami Beach into the national spotlight, whether it be doting magazine pieces profiling the city’s resiliency efforts or as the public face of the seaside city amid a public health crisis.

When the Miami Herald first reported that mosquitoes were transmitting the Zika virus in South Beach, much to the horror of local businesses and tourism boosters who live and die on the success of Miami-Dade’s signature industry, Levine stepped out front on several national television appearances to highlight the city’s prevention efforts.

But at first, he stumbled. At an impromptu late-night press conference, he declared that there was “no epidemic, no outbreak of Zika in Miami Beach.” Fourteen hours later, Gov. Rick Scott announced the first five confirmed cases of Zika in the Beach. Reeling afterward, Levine blamed a lack of communication from Tallahassee for the mistake.

Levine has never shied away from displaying his liberal politics, which is easy to do in a progressive city like Miami Beach. That. though, has come with consequences.

In March 2016, he traveled to Cuba in a historic visit with university students — the first such trip for the head of a Miami-Dade city since the revolution in 1959. He met with Cuban government officials and declared that his city would be open to welcoming Cuban diplomats at an embassy in the Beach.

What followed was an angry backlash from Miami’s exile community, who flooded City Hall for contentious public hearings that ended with a commission resolution rebuffing the idea until human-rights reforms happen on the communist island.

Levine won favor with labor unions when he spearheaded the passage of a mandatory citywide minimum wage last year, which represents direct challenge to state law. Business groups are now suing the city.

From his first days in office, Levine characterized his administration — which is really the administration of City Manager Jimmy Morales, who oversees the City Hall’s day-to-day operations in the Beach’s council-manager form of government — as an organization that would move fast on public projects. “Just get it done!” is the mayor’s credo. It has adorned stationery and drink coasters in his office.

That speed, in the case of sea-rise projects, has come with higher price tags. Much of the first round of improvements was built through multi-million contracts that were not publicly bid. The constant work has also come with traffic headaches surrounding lane closures and detours.

In other cases, the fast-moving initiatives came to a screeching halt after public outcry. Starting in 2015, Levine championed a bid to jumpstart a long-stalled rail connection between the mainland and the Beach. A centerpiece issue of Levine’s second term, the plan to build a two-mile train line solely in South Beach before the county built a link across the bay, was met with widespread opposition.

Residents criticized the push to move forward without a guaranteed connection to Downtown Miami. That project has now been delayed indefinitely in favor of waiting for the county to commit to building its portion of the project.

“I should’ve slowed down a few times, and then taken a breath,” Levine said about his attitude. “I should’ve stopped to take the temperature.”

In 2013, Levine rode into office on a wave of political change for the commission. Elected with two other like-minded political newcomers with whom he shared a political consultant, the mayor has generally overseen more efficient commission meetings.

After a honeymoon period, he has fought some battles. He’s butted heads with Commissioner Michael Grieco during the fracas over a possible Cuban consulate, on the train project and amid a debate over whether to increase stormwater fees, which have more than doubled in the past three years to pay for all of the sea-rise infrastructure work.

In the summer of 2015, Levine drew criticism for his involvement in a much-maligned political committee called Relentless for Progress. The committee, chaired by former commissioner Jonah Wolfson, asked for large contributions from city vendors, real estate developers and hotel owners. Levine help solicit some of these contributions and defended the committee publicly. Wolfson later closed the committee amid mounting controversy and an investigation by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

There is still no approved plan for a headquarters hotel adjacent to the convention center, which boosters consider a key element in the success of the expanded facility. After his first election, Levine moved to separate a massive expansion project into two halves that would move forward at the same time. One did — the renovation itself, which is currently one month behind schedule — and the other, a plan for a hotel, failed when it did not get 60 percent of the vote last year. Political rival Commssioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez led an opposition effort.

Levine quitting took me by surprise

Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who frequently opposes Levine on city issues

The Beach’s police department, once mired in one embarrassment after another, has encountered less controversy in the Levine years. Under Police Chief Dan Oates, the department ushered in body-worn cameras and revised rules for shooting at moving vehicles.

On the financial side, the mayor’s tenure has coincided with a period of increasing property values, allowing the commission to cut back property tax rates and fund police officers, parks improvements, lifeguard stands and free trolleys. All along, the city’s spending has increased, with its general fund budget surging nearly $40 million in the past two years.

It was recently revealed, though, that the city’s finance department is struggling. It failed to notice $3.6 million that was stolen from one of its bank accounts during a six-month period last year.

Looking at 2018

Gov. Rick Scott, at times a target for Levine’s barbs, is term-limited in 2018. Most Republicans expect Florida Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam to run.

The Democratic field is getting crowded. Other names circulating statewide as possible Democratic candidates: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, and trial lawyer John Morgan, a leading advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana.

A reporter asked Scott what he thought about Mayor Levine running for governor after a press conference at the U.S. headquarters of aircraft manufacturer Embraer in Fort Lauderdale.

“I tell lots of people this is a great job,” he said. “If you like people this is the job to have.”

Back in Miami Beach, the mayor’s seat is officially wide open for November’s election. Commissioner Ricky Arriola, elected in 2015, said he was thinking about running for mayor. Grieco is rumored to be mulling the same. On Thursday, he would only comment on Levine’s decision.

“I look forward to working with him over the next few months and wish him the very best in his future political endeavors,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.

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