Miami Beach’s mayoral election has attracted the kind of star power and money that has come to be expected of the million-dollar sandbar.
Former President Bill Clinton has dropped by, and eclectic Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson has weighed in. More than a million bucks in campaign expenditures have been made in the fight to become mayor of this brand-name city of 90,000.
The gig pays $10,000 a year, and the mayor only gets one vote out of seven on the City Commission. The job comes with no executive authority.
Hoping to land the post: former comedian Steve Berke, Commissioner Michael Góngora and self-made multimillionaire Philip Levine.
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Perennial, fringe candidate Raphael Herman also is running. He claims to have killed Osama bin Laden, solved the Cuban Missile Crisis and to have come up with President John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The election is Nov. 5. Early voting begins Monday. A likely runoff would be held Nov. 19.
Here’s a look at the main contenders.
This time, Steve Berke is serious.
You may remember him from his first run for Miami Beach mayor, when Berke declared himself a member of “the after party” and interrupted a City Commission meeting with a saxophone player.
That was 2011.
This year, the pot leaf and martini glass have been dropped from his logo, but his campaign is still unconventional: He has traded the jokes for MTV2 cameras. They’re filming him for a documentary — not a reality TV show, Berke says. He insists on the distinction, because reality shows are scripted and staged.
“As all of you know, I’m not your traditional political candidate,” Berke said in a recent debate. “I’m doing a lot of different things to try to motivate younger, disenfranchised voters to get involved in local elections.”
Berke, a 32-year-old Yale grad, says he has retired from comedy and prefers to be called an “entertainer.” He makes his living off his YouTube channel, where he posts parodies of popular songs. Many of his spoofs support the decriminalization of marijuana. Berke thinks Miami Beach should decriminalize small amounts of pot, which would free up police to target violent crimes. The Beach’s November ballot includes a straw ballot referendum on the issue.
Berke said his focus has shifted this year with a platform he calls his 2020 Vision.
The six-year plan centers on a cable car system strung across Biscayne Bay. It would link Miami Beach to the mainland, freeing up traffic along the clogged MacArthur Causeway and solving chronic parking and traffic problems on the Beach.
“It will be an iconic tourist bucket-list item, up there with the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye,” Berke said.
And it won’t cost taxpayers a penny, he claims, because the city could sell the naming rights in a public-private partnership.
He may be on to something: The idea has already piqued the interest of Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group.
“Our customers fly into Miami International Airport every day and I think SkyLink is a breathtaking public transportation solution they’d all enjoy,” Branson said, according to a news release. “Therefore, I’d be very interested in sponsoring the SkyLink as a public-private partnership.”
When he’s not pushing SkyLink, Berke tries to cast himself as a regular guy who’s running for office.
“Unlike my opponents, I’m just like you,” he told the crowd at a recent debate. “I’m not a career politician entrenched in City Hall politics, and I’m also not a multimillionaire, maybe a billionaire, who woke up one day and decided he wanted to buy this election.”
Despite the hard hits at candidate forums and debates, Berke’s campaign hasn’t heavily advertised and insists he’s the only candidate who’s not working in conjunction with a third-party group, such as an electioneering communication organization or a political action committee. Meanwhile, third-party groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending out hit pieces on both Góngora and Levine. Where the groups got the money is hard to trace.
“I think ultimately it comes down to honesty. Voters should be able to trust whoever they vote into office, and when my opponents deny connections to these very expensive attack campaigns, they’re lying,” Berke said.
This election could be historic in Miami Beach.
If elected, Michael Góngora would be the first openly gay mayor of the city. He was the first openly gay elected commissioner when he first won a seat in 2006.
And yet, Góngora isn’t talking about it on the campaign trail.
“I’m not running to be the gay mayor. I’m just the best candidate who happens to be gay. I’m running on my platform,” Góngora said.
Góngora first won a commission seat in a special election, and lost reelection a year later. He ran again and won in 2009.
Each time, his driving record — including a 2002 DUI arrest that was downgraded to a reckless driving charge — has been the subject of attack ads stuffed into voter’s mailboxes.
“I made a mistake, and it’s not a mistake that will impact in any way, shape, or form my ability to lead the city as mayor,” Góngora said.
On the campaign trail, Góngora’s strategy has been to cast his opponents as political neophytes. He has called himself “the only qualified candidate to serve as your mayor.”
But with incumbency comes blame for the city’s problems, which opponents gleefully lob at Góngora. Scandal has been plentiful in recent years.
Eight city employees have been accused of taking bribes, rigging bids and even running “sham” cocaine for an undercover FBI agent. The police department still hasn’t lived down an infamous July 3, 2011, fiasco, when an officer drunkenly ran over two beachgoers while riding an all terrain vehicle on the sand — with a bachelorette in tow.
In the wake of the scandals, former City Manager Jorge Gonzalez was forced off the job, though he was never implicated in any of the wrongdoing. Gonzalez took with him a $440,000 severance package. Góngora has been attacked for voting for the payout, but he says he just voted to grant what was legally owed to the former manager.
Góngora also says the city is tackling its problems.
In April, the city inked a contract with a new manager, Jimmy Morales, who has gotten near-universal praise for his work.
Along with a new manager have come major changes in top personnel at the city: Almost half of the Beach’s department directors are new, Góngora says. He also points out that the city has conducted an audit of its code department and changed the way inspectors check on clubs. And commissioners recently voted to bring an outside agency to review its police department, and possibly implement a citizen’s review panel.
“Miami Beach has cleaned up a lot of issues in the past year,” Góngora said. “We’ve moved in a new direction.”
The way Philip Levine tells the story, he started off with $500 in a studio apartment above the News Cafe on Ocean Drive.
Now the 51-year-old is a multimillionaire with businesses in the cruise industry and real estate development in Miami Beach.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Massachusetts as “a poor kid with a single mom,” Levine told a reporter in 2012.
Levine touts his business acumen, saying he’d run City Hall like the private sector would.
“The residents want to be treated as customers. That’s what they’re looking for,” Levine said.
To fix the city’s dizzying permitting and inspection processes, Levine said the city should outline how long certain processes will take by posting notices on the walls. If a permit or process takes longer than advertised, then it should be free, Levine said.
“I’m running to fix what’s broken,” Levine told a crowd of supporters at a campaign event.
His business record has also been under attack, though. Earlier this year, Levine’s company agreed to a consent judgment in Alaska. His company agreed to pay $45,000 and to have its port lecturers disclose whether the companies they were recommending were paying for the publicity. Levine said the company wasn’t doing business in Alaska at the time, but paid the settlement to be able to do so.
Levine has bankrolled his own campaign to the tune of $1.2 million. He calls his campaign events “Friendraisers.” Contributions aren’t required, and Levine picks up the tab.
Levine says that’s proof he won’t be “beholden to special interests.”
“You can’t take the king’s shilling, and not become the king’s man,” he has repeated on the campaign trail.
His opponents aren’t buying it.
Levine has myriad real estate investments along with Scott Robins, a prolific Miami Beach developer. He owns 31 properties throughout Florida, 18 of which are in the Beach, according to his financial disclosure.
“If you get into office,” Berke said to Levine at a debate, “there’s nothing that us regular residents can do to stop you from passing your agenda with your developer partners and ignoring the quality life of our residents.”
Levine mostly brushes this off, and instead paints himself as a populist: He has learned Spanish to speak with a crucial Beach voting bloc.He qualified for office not by paying the fee, but by collecting 1,500 signatures — only the second candidate to do so in the city since at least 1996.
For this, he was commended by an old friend: Former President Bill Clinton. Clinton stopped by Levine’s campaign headquarters earlier this month to announce his support of Levine’s run.
“I know he’s competent. I know he cares about the people,” Clinton told a roomful of Levine supporters. “I wish you well and I thank you for helping my friend, because he’ll make a great mayor.”
Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.