State Politics

Jeff Greene makes debut at Democratic debate with a special money offer

Democratic gubernatorial candidates during a debate held at Florida Gulf Coast University’s dimly lit Cohen Center on Wednesday night in Fort Myers. From left: former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Orlando businessman Chris King, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Palm Beach billionaire developer Jeff Greene and former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates during a debate held at Florida Gulf Coast University’s dimly lit Cohen Center on Wednesday night in Fort Myers. From left: former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Orlando businessman Chris King, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Palm Beach billionaire developer Jeff Greene and former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine. AP Photo

Jeff Greene, the billionaire newcomer to the Democratic governor’s race, made his debate debut by dangling his wallet before Democrat voters tired of losing.

His riches will help elect Democrats up and down the ballot, the Palm Beach Democrat suggested.

“We’ve had great ideas for 20 years. We’ve had great candidates for 20 years. The problem is, we haven’t had anyone who can get the message out and to fight these Republicans dollar for dollar, toe-for-toe-for-toe. I am committed to do that,” Greene said at the end of an hour-long Wednesday night debate at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

“I will spend my own money to get out there and fight these Republicans, and I will back up the down-ticket races so we turn Florida blue — not just in the governor’s race, but in the Senate race and in the House race,” said Greene, who in one month has spent more than $9 million to become a leading contender in the five-person primary.

The moderators from the CBS affiliate TV station in Fort Myers covered a wide range of Florida issues, including the pollution in Lake Okeechobee, education funding and the increasing cost of living in Florida.

But in a primary where the candidates differ little on the issues, the ability to win looms as a giant issue for Democrats who have lost the last five races for governor. “I am sick of losing. It’s time for Democrats to win again,” said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “And the way that we’re going to win again is by giving voters a reason to go out and vote for something and not just against.”

Gillum, 38, pointed out that he is the only non-millionaire on the stage and said he is best equipped to give voters a reason to vote for someone, as Barack Obama did, rather than against someone.

He was not the only one trying to stand out from the pack in a debate that was live-streamed online and televised in the Fort Myers area.

“I look a little different than my friends up here on stage,” former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, the only woman, said at the outset.

And later she noted that in 2014 she won a Republican-leaning North Florida congressional district.

“I am the one candidate on this stage who has won in a red area in a Republican wave year,” said the 55-year-old daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham.

Winter Park businessman Chris King of Winter Park cast himself as the bold, unconventional candidate with big ideas, such as a tax on ammunition.

“We have lost because we have forgotten that we are the party of big dreams,” said King, 39. “This was a party built to do big things. To take on hard challenges. We turn people out. We excite and inspire when we’re willing to give them something different. When we’re willing to take on the sugar industry because we are so tired of these toxic discharges.”

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, no billionaire but worth well over $100 million, also has spent millions of his own money on TV ads that put him up toward the top of most polls, but Greene’s entry has threatened to overshadow him. He took a swipe at Greene’s resume.

“We don’t want to just necessarily elect somebody from the private sector who’s never been tested in the public sector,” he said of Greene, 63. “We all can agree with that.”

Greene is a billionaire developer and investor who made a fortune on complex financial instruments in which he essentially bet that the housing bubble would burst in 2008. He has pledged to spend much of his wealth on philanthropy.

He ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination against Kendrick Meek, who attacked Greene over controversies including his friendship with convicted rapist Mike Tyson and his 145-foot yacht’s visit to Cuba in 2007.

On Wednesday night, the two super-rich candidates, Greene, 63, and Levine, 56, stressed their humble, working class backgrounds and spoke of their young kids.

Every candidate spoke of how much they dislike President Donald Trump and are ready to stand up to him.

“I have been fighting with Donald Trump since as long as I’ve known him,” boasted Greene, who is a member of Trump’s Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, just a few hundred yards from Greene’s oceanfront mansion.

One issue that does divide the field is recreational marijuana. All the candidates criticize Republican leaders in Tallahassee for taking so long to make voter-approved medicinal marijuana accessible, but only Gillum, Levine and King support legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Greene on Thursday said he is not ready to legalize it, the same position as Graham.

“I kind of imagine, you know, what would it be like five years from now if my oldest son, who would be 13 years old, going over to his friend’s house and there’s a marijuana cigarette — pack of cigarettes on the table,” he said. “Is he going to be more likely to smoke marijuana?”



Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.
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