As Steve Berke plotted his second run for mayor of Miami Beach, he assembled a campaign team, crafted a platform, and signed with an agent.
The 32-year-old entertainer hopes to ride his campaign into a starring role on MTV with a reality series based on his civic activism. He’s promising a more sober pursuit of Miami Beach’s top elected office, abandoning the pranks and one-liners that made him something of a media star when he took on incumbent Mayor Matti Bower in 2011.
“Our agents pitched this as a compelling story,’’ Berke said in an interview. “It’s about my struggle to get younger people interested in municipal elections.”
Berke sees his ambitious plan for a bay-spanning gondola as proof of his turn from novelty candidate to a returning contender with serious ideas after a strong second-place finish in 2011. And he’s not the first to mix city politics with reality television; Commissioner Michael Góngora last year was trailed by camera crews as part of his effort to pitch to E! a reality-show based on his civic life.
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But while Berke’s 2011 run earned him national attention that ended with his loss on Election Day, this time around his run may bring him something more enduring. He said MTV has agreed to air at least one documentary about him on MTV2 and that, if all goes well, it would become a series — win or lose.
At a Wednesday morning event where Berke announced his campaign platform, media and guests had to sign waivers allowing them to be filmed for a show. A cameraman from a New York production company shot footage of him greeting supporters, and conducting interviews with local reporters.
Berke’s 2011 run earned national attention for his bad-boy approach to local politics. He rapped in a campaign video that “I am running to be mayor, yo,” declared himself a member of the “After Party,” endorsed same-sex marriage because “gay people have the right to lose half their s--t in a divorce like the rest of us,’’ and brought a saxophone player to City Hall to accompany his denunciation of Bower’s tenure.
But on Wednesday, Berke said he was leaving those antics behind in favor of a serious take on his hometown city’s challenges.
With a speech free of punch lines, Berke unveiled a six-year plan to reign in police misconduct, address the city’s flooding woes, tackle pension liabilities, and spend nearly $500 million on a gondola system that would link the Miami waterfront with a new “DecoTram” light-rail system in Miami Beach. He sees the system as a way to both alleviate traffic congestion and a global tourist attraction – and a better use of public funds than the planned $1 billion renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center that voters will consider in November. “Close your eyes for a moment and join me in 2020,’’ Berke told the crowd. “Stretching out in front of you is the Sky Link, the coolest, most iconic public transportation system in the world.”
“All the schtick is gone this time around,’’ he said in an interview before the event. “This year’s campaign is a completely different campaign and under a different brand. I’ve retired from comedy.”
But can Berke retire his role as comic relief? And with a television show that began filming him just a week ago, will he remain so serious?
As he waited for the media to fill Haven lounge Wednesday morning for the platform news conference, images of him flashed on the walls. There was Berke in a tank top, Berke smoking from a bong, and Berke wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “F--K Harvard”(Berke said those images, from a 2011 parody video he produced, were put up in error.) . A redone campaign website still has beauty shots of young women, but the heading has been changed from “Models” to “Campaign Staff.”
The event drew at least two notables: David Kelsey, a longtime civic activist in Miami Beach, and Jorge Gonzalez, the ousted city manager who is about to take the top job in Bal Harbour Village. Both had warm words for Berke, even if they weren’t ready to call him a contender. “Last time, he was the jokester,’’ Gonzalez said. “This time around, I don’t think he’s joking.”
Bower, who is seeking a commission seat rather than running for a fourth term, won 60 percent of the vote in 2011, and Berke took second with a 23-percent share. His rivals this year are mostly brushing off Berke as a challenger.
“I think he’s an entertaining comedian,’’ said Góngora, who is running for mayor. “He should take some time and learn how Miami Beach operates before running for mayor.” A spokesman for Philip Levine, a wealthy political newcomer who is considered Góngora’s toughest rival, declined to comment about Berke.
The details of Berke’s production deal couldn’t be confirmed Wednesday but featuring Miami Beach politics on the small screen might be a natural evolution for a city that has been one of reality television’s favorite backdrops. Producers have used Miami Beach to chronicle parking wars ( South Beach Tow), body art ( Miami Ink), and workaday celebrity blues ( Kourtney and Kim Take Miami).
A cable show also would extend Berke’s success as a small player in the rapidly expanding industry of homemade videos. Berke stars in video parodies of popular songs, and the often-raunchy spoofs have gained his YouTube channel more than 89,000 subscribers.
His most popular video, which transforms Macklemore’s Thrift Shop into a celebration of marijuana use called Pot Shop, has been watched 12 million times. Berke said the accompanying advertising dollars make YouTube a primary source of income for him. He said the other is a production business where companies pay him to create videos designed to go viral.
Berke said he would be running without the television deal, which he estimates will probably earn him about $5,000 in talent fees from IMG, which Berke said is producing the show for MTV. (An IMG executive and MTV spokeswoman were not available for comment.) Berke insists the program will be a documentary and not “reality television,’’ since so much of that genre is actually scripted.
He justifies the antics of 2011 as a way to gain attention — both from national media outlets, including The New York Times, but also locally. He contends he helped shape the debate over two issues facing voters in November: whether to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center and whether to urge Florida to legalize marijuana — an issue at the center of Berke’s campaign planks and a common theme in his music videos.
Whether or not those issues will give him a shot at City Hall this time around, Berke sees his potential television audience as an asset to the city, win or lose.
“When Miami Beach voters can watch what is going on in their government, they are going to be outraged,’’ he said. “Even in defeat, these cameras can accomplish a lot for the people of Miami Beach.”