Philip Levine’s luxury coach was somewhere around Live Oak when his campaign began to hit potholes.
More than 350 miles from the friendly confines of South Florida, the generator aboard the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s marble-laden tour bus began leaking oil, forcing an emergency pit stop on an Interstate 10 on-ramp. An hour later, the 20-seater, wrapped in blue and white Levine logos, wheezed into Tallahassee in need of repair — forcing the “Live! From Florida’s Living Rooms” tour to hold its next stop over a FaceTime connection.
That same night, the former Miami Beach mayor, who during his four-year tenure cracked down on home-sharing, learned from reporters that he’d unwittingly spent the morning in the living room of a Jacksonville Airbnb host. And in a bizarre turn, a Miami Beach commissioner and friend tagging along for moral support was accused of attempted sexual battery.
It was a rough 24 hours to be sure. But with seven months to go until the August primaries, you could argue that headlines of any kind are good for Levine.
Despite a mild celebrity built off appearances in documentaries with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a longtime status as a Democratic booster, the 55-year-old entrepreneur and media CEO finds himself, like his competitors, beginning the year relatively unknown to voters in the Sunshine State. Though he’s led two previous statewide bus tours over the last 18 months, acted as a surrogate for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and made regular appearances on cable news networks, early polls still show him in the single digits, behind former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and fighting with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for second ahead of Winter Park businessman Chris King.
Miami Beach has become a model for the world. Now let’s do it in Florida.
Philip Levine, on climate change
“I feel like we’ve watched this movie before,” Levine said in an interview, comparing his bid to win the Democratic nomination to his first foray into politics four years ago when he ran for Miami Beach mayor. “We don’t take anything for granted. We have a hard, long hill to climb but I know that we can get there.”
And so, despite conventional wisdom that voters aren’t all that interested yet in the choices for their next governor, Levine is pushing hard to get his name out now. Promising to spend millions of his personal money on his campaign, the independently wealthy businessman has already invested $2 million on a Florida commercial blitz and last week dropped $30,000 on a Premiere Transportation Eisenhower model to comfortably take him across the state and boost his visibility.
“He’s trying to get their attention as a candidate and people aren’t paying attention” to the race, said Steven Vancore, a Tallahassee-based pollster. “People don’t see themselves as voters right now. They’re car mechanics and bus drivers.”
Wearing blue jeans and a tailored navy blue suit coat with a Florida pin on his lapel, Levine traveled to central Florida on the first leg of his trip, where he shared the story of how he turned a cruise line media company into a personal fortune, and then oversaw a climate change makeover to Miami Beach’s streets, sea walls and flood control system.
“Miami Beach has become a model for the world,” he said in Gainesville about the city’s $400 million investment. “Now let’s do it in Florida.”
In Orlando, where he opened his tour by courting Puerto Rican voters in the home of an 86-year-old activist and political organizer, he talked about flying to Puerto Rico in a chartered cargo plane to deliver supplies after Hurricane Maria, and flashed his fluent Spanish. After an obligatory lunch stop at Sonny’s barbecue — followed by a text to the restaurant’s owner, Floyd “Sonny” Tillman — the University of Michigan alum told University of Florida students at a campus Chabad that Floridians should be able to graduate from a state college debt-free as long as they commit to work in the state for an extended period afterward.
Though the trip was billed as a contrast to the opening of Florida’s legislative session in Tallahassee and a chance to hear directly from voters on their turf, it was also something of an introduction to Levine, easily the most flamboyant candidate on the Democratic side. He repeatedly compared Tallahassee’s push to restrict cities from passing local regulations to Moscow’s control of the former Soviet Union, and bashed Gov. Rick Scott for wanting “a state full of Walmarts and McDonald’s wanting to pay everybody $8 an hour.”
(Walmart, coincidentally, announced during his road trip that it was raising its workers’ starting wages to $11 an hour, citing federal tax cuts.)
Wallace Mazon, a 23-year-old UF senior and Democrat who challenged Levine on his knowledge of rural areas during his campus visit, said he’s intrigued by the businessman’s background but skeptical that he can sell Alachua County on South Beach.
“He’s basing all of this political record off of what he did in Miami Beach, which to me isn’t all that impressive with just everyday voters,” said Mazon. “The flip side of that is we also have to recognize that he’s a very successful entrepreneur, which I do think resonates.”
So is the campaign gaining traction? Vancore, the Tallahassee pollster, thinks the early campaign and long-term media exposure will pay dividends closer to election day. Levine, though, seems to think returns are coming in already.
On Wednesday, his campaign announced yet another six-figure ad blitz across the state through the end of February. As Levine headed home, his campaign began promoting a newly released Florida Chamber of Commerce poll that they said showed he is in second place and closing on Graham, even as it put him at 7 percent to her 14, with two-thirds of voters undecided.
At the very least, Levine got Graham’s attention after telling reporters in Tallahassee that “the fact that I’ve actually had that weird thing in my background called a job, the fact that I’ve actually done something in my life outside the public sector” is what separates him from her.
When Levine stopped in Tampa the next day, former University of South Florida president Betty Castor greeted him by endorsing Graham and saying that Levine’s “view that motherhood is anything less than a full-time job is exactly the kind of tone-deaf attitude we already see out of too many politicians in DC and Tallahassee.” On a Tampa radio program the next day, he fired back, saying “I’m sorry they feel the need to play this kind of card so early in the game.”
If Levine was bothered by the bumps in the road, he hasn’t show it. Whether it’s talking about Miami Beach or fighting in the media with Graham, for now, he seems happy just to drive the conversation.
“I didn’t get into this to make friends,” Levine told a reporter as his coach headed on a path to governor-or-bust. “If people don’t like you, they don’t like you. Life goes on.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.