After recount, Levine wins Miami Beach mayoral race

Philip Levine is officially Miami Beach’s next mayor.

In the end, it took an automatic recount to confirm that Levine had won his first run for elected office — without the need for a runoff. He bested a sitting commissioner and a former comedian.

Although the race was nasty and expensive, Levine sounded conciliatory after the Miami-Dade County canvassing board declared him the winner after a recount on Friday.

"It was a very spirited race,” Levine said. “My opponents and I didn't agree on everything, but we do love the city of Miami Beach."

Levine said his first line of business will be to sit down with the city manager for a full briefing on the city's issues, including getting the convention center back on track and resolving flooding problems.

"I will talk to the existing group. I want to feel, look and see how to create something that the people really want," he said about the convention center, adding that he also wants to conduct a full traffic study.

Levine also addressed the voters that did not vote for him.

"I will have to work even harder to earn their trust," he said. "There are many cultures, but diversity is our strength. We have to complete the change that we set out to do and have a level of transparency."

On the issue of corruption in the city he said, "corruption happens everywhere it's allowed to. When there's a zero tolerance policy that message goes from the top to the bottom."

He said he will ensure the system is based on performance.

Election results had been uncertain because Levine fell just short of avoiding an automatic recount after precincts closed Tuesday. It wasn’t even clear a recount would be required, until the county’s canvassing board met Friday. That’s because Levine needed just five more votes to avoid a recount, and election day results did not include provisional ballots.

Provisional ballots are cast by voters who can’t prove their eligibility on election day. They are given two days to prove they can indeed vote, and the canvassing board then decides whether to accept their ballots.

There were 14 provisional ballots cast in Miami Beach. The canvassing board ultimately accepted six of them, bringing Levine up to 50.49 percent of the vote. Under state law, he needed at least 50.5 to avoid a recount, which took a little less than four hours on Friday.

Levine was not present at the recount. His campaign was planning to hold a press conference at his Alton Road campaign headquarters.

There was a slim possibility that a recount could have knocked Levine below the majority needed for an outright win against his closest competitor, sitting Commissioner Michael Góngora. To avoid a runoff, a candidate needs 50 percent plus one vote.

Levine, a wealthy businessman with companies in the cruise industry, poured almost $2 million of his own money into the race to become mayor. The job pays only $10,000 a year, and comes with no executive authority.

His money and ties to developers were points of contention on the campaign trail. His competitors accuse Levine of buying his votes. Levine’s campaign flooded mailboxes, TVs and radios with election ads.

But Levine paints himself as a populist. He says he knocked on 4,000 doors. He often reminds detractors that he qualified for office by petition — not by paying the required fee.

His message: to bring a business-like mentality to City Hall. He wants to expedite permitting, treat residents like customers and “fix what’s broken.” Levine is also part of a crop of new candidate who favor a smaller renovation of the city-owned convention center. The project, currently estimated at $1 billion, became a major campaign issue.

A significant Democratic fundraiser, Levine landed an endorsement by former President Bill Clinton. Clinton called Levine a “friend” when announcing his support.

For Góngora, the loss marks his second failed bid for Beach political office. He stood with his mother shortly after the results were announced.

“It’s disappointing,” Góngora said. “ I’m going to wrap up the projects I was working on, and go back to being a lawyer.”

On the campaign trail, Góngora was attacked for his driving record, including a DUI that was later downgraded to a reckless driving charge. Opponents heaped the city’s problems — flooding, bloated pensions, corruption arrests of city employees — squarely on Góngora’s shoulders.

Góngora has also generally been supportive of the city’s large-scale convention center renovation.

Former comedian Steve Berke, meanwhile, struggled to be taken seriously after a silly 2011 run. This time around, MTV2 cameras followed him on the campaign trail. Berke says he is the subject of a documentary.

With official results finally in, a caustic mayoral contest finally comes to an end.

The Beach’s three commission races, however, are in the throes of runoffs. None of the candidates in those races managed to command the majority vote needed to win a seat outright.

For Group I, Realtor Micky Steinberg faces off against retiree Elsa Urquiza. Incumbent Jorge Exposito is up against criminal defense attorney Michael Grieco in the fight for Group II. And in Group III, retired community banker Joy Malakoff faces current Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, who decided to run for commission after being term-limited from her current post.

Herald writer Brittny Valdes contributed to this story. Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.