Miami Beach’s new mayor faces transition from private CEO to public servant

Philip Levine is used to calling the shots as the CEO of a multi-million dollar media business.

On Nov. 25, he’ll take the helm of Miami Beach’s commission as mayor, after winning his first run for political office in a hard-fought campaign against a sitting commissioner.

As a corporate mogul, but newbie politician, Levine will have to learn how to run a different kind of shop — one in which his powers are significantly limited. Unlike the role he’s played in business, the mayorship comes with no executive authority.

Miami Beach has a city manager form of government, which means a hired employee handles the day-to-day dealings of city government. The mayor and commission decide on policy issues, and it’s up to city employees to implement those policies.

So instead of being boss, Levine will have just one vote among a seven-member commission. He’ll have to explain his decisions to a demanding activist community and an intensely interested press. And getting things done will take longer than in private business.

In those ways, the roles and responsibilities of a mayor in a city manager form of government are far different than having complete control over your own company.

“If you ask people about how they’d like to see government run, a lot of times they tend to answer they want to see it run as a business,” said Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner. “But the truth is that government doesn’t really operate like a business. It operates like a government, which often has checks and balances ... and business people often feel very constrained by government.”

And yet, plenty of business professionals get into politics. Perhaps the most famous is New York’s outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Florida has its very own CEO governor, Rick Scott. In Miami-Dade, Doral recently elected a business mogul-turned-politician: Luigi Boria.

Success in business is easy to sell on the campaign trail. When it comes to budgets and efficiency, business professionals can boast expertise. On the campaign trail, Levine talked about treating residents like customers — including implementing a money-back guarantee for people who don’t get their building permits within a reasonable amount of time.

“We need someone like Levine who is an entrepreneur and a visionary, who can bring changes to the beach,” said Beatriz Parga, 60, a Beach voter who supported Levine.

To most, Levine’s resume would look impressive.

He says he started his business in 1990, in a South Beach studio with $500 in capital. He was a young man who had just landed a job on the cruise ships as a port lecturer, telling people where to shop when they arrived at their destinations.

Levine turned his stint on cruise ships into an $85 million business that produced onboard TV advertisements, magazines and port marketing.

Through a merger, he expanded his company, Onboard Media, to create the world’s largest duty-free shopping and media firm in the cruise industry, with revenues reaching $400 million, according to Levine. He sold that company to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 2000.

Levine soon created another cruise ship media company, Royal Media Partners. The company works exclusively with Royal Caribbean International and is headquartered on Alton Road.

Levine has refused to speak to the Miami Herald, saying that the paper is biased and would distort his answers.

Boria, the mayor of Doral, admitted that getting used to the press his city generates has been a difficult part of being in elected office.

Boria entered politics in 2010 after 21 years in the city working as owner of The Wise Computer, a multinational computer part distribution company. His business made him a millionaire.

Success in business has not translated smoothly to success at City Hall. Boria’s tenure has been marked with growing pains, and he’s made headlines after publicly feuding with his fellow council members and City Manager Joe Carollo.

Rather than being able to call the shots without being challenged, Boria said, a mayor has to “sell” his ideas to his fellow council members and to the public.

Once an idea takes hold, implementing new practices within a city government can take time. It usually requires bidding processes, public meetings and sometimes, the approval of various boards and committees.

Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher, who is CEO of a property auction company, said the pace of government can be “frustrating” for a businessman.

“When you’re dealing with the private sector and your own firm, you’re used to making the decision and moving forward, on to the next project,” Fisher said.

Then there’s the business of explaining -- and sometimes defending -- your decisions to the public. That’s a far cry from being head honcho of a private company, said Wagner, the FAU professor.

“A lot of business people aren’t in the habit of explaining their actions and feeling the need to do so,” Wagner said. “A politician has to answer to their constituents on a regular basis, and so they need newspapers. They need media, because the media is a conduit to their constituents.”

Another thing CEOs probably aren’t used to is getting pushback when it comes to implementing their ideas. While running for mayor, Levine was criticized for taking a very businessman-like approach to opposition: His campaign filed lawsuits and complaints against politically active residents who did not support his candidacy.

Fisher, the Pompano Beach mayor, had some advice to share.

“When you’re first elected, you are surprised because you’re not used to the criticism that one might provide. But you soon learn that they are not the majority,” said Fisher, who runs a property auction company. “You begin to have thicker skin. You learn to listen and be polite, but you move on.”

Miami Herald writer Brittny Valdes and staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

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