If Democrats want to win the Florida governor’s mansion in November, boost Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election chances and best position themselves to take back the White House in two years, they should elect Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene as their candidate for governor.
Of the five Democrats on the Aug. 28 ballot, Greene is the game changer, not just because he promises to spend the money needed to ensure he and other Democrats win, but because he has the know-how, confidence and connections to get good things done.
As a candidate, Greene is thoughtful, fast on his feet and counterpunches with a smile on his face. His main focus is public education, starting with early learning, which is so essential to long-term success.
Greene wants to replace voluntary pre-kindergarten — what he calls “a few hours a day of babysitting” — with two years of mandatory pre-K for every 3- and 4-year old. It bothers him that Florida now pays just $2,400 per year per child, which for a class of 20, adds up to $48,000 a year for teachers, supplies and overhead. “It’s ridiculous. We need to have real pre-K for every child.”
Like the other candidates, Greene wants to increase teachers’ average salary of $47,267, which ranks 45th in the nation. He also talks about giving teachers the time they need to collaborate and advance their skills to teach skills like computer coding, for example.
Greene understands education from having started a private laboratory school for students with high IQs in West Palm Beach. He’s excited about technology that can tailor curriculum to a child’s interests.
“I’m a builder, so my feeling is that … if you build a great foundation, the building will rise and last forever,” Greene said in a Friday interview with the editorial page editors of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post. “If you have a lousy foundation … that foundation for these kids is their education.”
On most issues, Greene and the other Democratic candidates are not far apart. They all want a course correction after 20 years of Republican rule in Tallahassee. They want to get assault weapons off the streets, repeal the Stand Your Ground law and end the NRA’s stranglehold.
They also want to improve access to health care and expand Medicaid. They want to grow jobs beyond those that pay minimum wage. They want a plan to address sea-level rise, which today’s lawmakers refuse to discuss. Above all, they want to make schools safe, rein in high-stakes testing and stop starving public schools to feed for-profit charter schools.
The frontrunner is former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who grew up at the knee of a great former governor and U.S. senator, Bob Graham. She is a smart, kind and caring woman who identifies herself as a mom and former PTA president. She won a North Florida congressional seat in 2014, handing the Republicans a rare defeat in that mid-term election. She chose to run for governor after redistricting changed her district so much that she had little chance of winning re-election. In the year of the #MeToo movement, she has an advantage as “Gwen and the men.”
Without question, Graham is a standard-bearer of Democratic values. She’s been criticized for voting to approve the Keystone Pipeline, but once the oil was being harvested, she was right to approve the best transportation method. In truth, her record as a moderate would be a plus in the general election.
But Graham has failed to command the stage in the gubernatorial debates and gave weak answers in a recent interview about her family company’s role in a Disney-sized mall planned next to the Everglades in Miami-Dade County. Though likable, we fear Graham could be outgunned (and outspent) by the eventual Republican nominee.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is a strong candidate, too. He’s running a sharp, agile campaign after personally chipping in close to $14 million. Levine is a hard-working, self-made man who built a cruise industry magazine-and-promotions business. As mayor, he put his city on the map for its response to sea-level rise. But some of the engineering hasn’t worked out so well and in the face of criticism, Levine wields sharp elbows.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is the most charismatic candidate, lighting up audiences with his passion, insight and ability to relate to everyday people. He’s stood up to the NRA, refusing to rescind a city ordinance that bans guns in public parks after the NRA pushed a state law that bans local gun ordinances. Because campaigning statewide is so expensive and raising money so difficult, Gillum, the only non-millionaire in the race, has not been able to widely introduce himself and so remains low in the polls. He’s also been hurt by an FBI investigation hanging over his city, though he is not a target.
The fifth candidate, Orlando businessman Chris King, has never before run for office. Many Democrats wish he had run for Attorney General, instead. King is the only candidate to call for a repeal of the death penalty and a tax on bullets. Though he’s campaigned for well over a year, King has failed to rise from single digits in the polls.
Greene said he entered the race late because he saw no candidate generating the enthusiasm needed to win. He quickly spent more than $13 million on television ads, making it a three-way race among Graham, Levine and himself.
In the final debate, Greene said he was willing to spend $100 million, perhaps $200 million, on the race. During our interview, he said that was unlikely. But with his net worth estimated at $3.4 billion, there’s no question Greene has the resources to win. He notes that Republicans outspent Democrats — $120 million to $50 million — in the last gubernatorial race.
Greene rubs shoulders with people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg. He and his wife, Mei Sze, have joined The Giving Pledge — promising to contribute a majority of their money to philanthropic causes.
Greene sees economic challenges on Florida’s horizon with the advance of technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. “We need to be thinking, ‘What is the economy going to look like years from now?’ … We need to think carefully about how to have an economy that works for everyone.”
Greene says Florida’s job potential includes elder care, health care and solar energy. He generally opposes incentives for businesses, noting that deals to recruit companies such as Scripps and Digital Domain “dumped money down the sewer.”
He’s definitely against spending public money on stadiums for billionaire team owners. As for the film industry, he urges caution. “A lot of people in that business, they shop from state to state. You want to make sure you’re not making a deal where you’re spending $100 to get back $80.”
Greene knows what it’s like to be poor. After the textile industry collapsed in Massachusetts, so did his parents’ business. His family moved to West Palm Beach, where his father worked a vending-machine route and his mother waited tables at The Breakers. As a teenager, Greene got a job as a busboy, then as a waiter, at the famous hotel.
He went on to attend Johns Hopkins University and graduated in just two and a half years. Next, he got a job that put him on the road for three years.
“I was living on nothing, saving everything and working 60 hours a week.” When he entered Harvard Business School, he’d saved $100,000. With it, he bought a three-unit building, living in one and renting out two. By the time he finished graduate school, he owned 18 properties and his real estate business was well on its way.
Over the past 40 years, Greene, 63, says he’s built hotels, office buildings and thousands of housing units. When the market collapsed in the early 1990s, he said his net worth bottomed out, though he owned considerable assets. In the early 2000s, to protect himself from the growing housing bubble, he began shorting mortgage-backed securities — an investment that made him super-rich.
Greene is a gubernatorial candidate unlike any the Democrats have seen. If he wins the nomination, he said he plans to put money into six state Senate races to help form a Legislature he can work with.
Such a rising tide would help Sen. Nelson in his neck-and-neck re-election campaign against Gov. Rick Scott.
And if Democrats were to win the governor’s mansion, they would control the narrative during the 2020 presidential election, which could help turn this battleground state blue.
Greene has been characterized as a billionaire trying to buy the election. But he’s much more than that. He is a highly credible candidate and a counterweight to Rick Scott and Donald Trump. Democrats should grab the promise and vote for Jeff Greene for governor.