THE BLOG
06/09/2016 03:52 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2017

The Mayor Of A City In The Spotlight

In the early 1990s before becoming Mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine built a friendship with Bill Clinton. The pair first met at Levine's Miami home where the businessman hosted a fundraising event for the former President over two decades ago. When Clinton asked Levine to join him in the limousine going back to Air Force One following the fundraiser, the two formed a lasting alliance. Throughout the 2000s, they travelled together to Saudi Arabia where Levine met King Abdullah and to Australia's Great Barrier Reef where Clinton and Levine were together on 9/11.

"Truly what inspired me to run for Mayor was Bill Clinton," Levine told me in his trademark ebullient voice. "After I sold all my companies, I was no longer president. And, I always laugh. He was no longer President."

While they certainly have that in common, the similarities between the two run much deeper. Not all young boys meet their heroes, but Clinton and Levine did. Clinton famously shook hands with President John F. Kennedy as a mere high school junior from the small town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Levine forged a strong friendship with Celtics Player, Art "Hambone" Williams when he was an eight-year old living in a suburb of Boston. A player on the 1974 NBA Championship team, Williams invited Levine to a Celtics game where he sat on the floor and met the team in the locker room. Levine called the experience the best day of his life in a sixth grade report. Decades after losing touch, Levine reconnected with Williams. "I called him and said Art, you'll never believe who this in a million years," Levine recounted. "He said, is this the police? I said no, it's that little eight year old boy you took the Celtics game." Levine then invited Williams to watch the Celtics play against the Heat in Miami forty-five years after they last saw each other, and the local news had a field day.

Basketball remains important to Levine who's a fixture on the floor at Heat games. Acting as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton following the New York primaries, Levine used a spirited basketball metaphor to describe the Sanders campaign's efforts to stay in the race. "I am a big Miami Heat fan," he told Fox News anchor, Brian Kilmeade on Fox and Friends. "I remember going to the Golden Warriors game and I saw Stephen Curry dunk those three-point shots from the three-point line. And, after a while, I started to say to myself, maybe we need to change the rules. Maybe, we take the three-point line and move it back in the middle of the game."

With the most amazing future First husband President Bill Clinton winning the NY primary! @hillaryclinton #imwithher

A photo posted by Mayor Philip Levine's (@mayorlevine) on

In parallel to President Clinton, Levine grew up in a single parent home. He lived with his mother, Diane and his sister, Deborah in Boston until the family moved to Hollywood, Florida just twenty miles north of the community he now leads. "I think President Clinton really had the same experience of being brought up by his single mom and achieving success," Levine told me. "Growing up very quickly at a very young age makes you understand how to adapt and sell yourself."

Both politicians have been successful primarily because they understand the value of communication and connections. Levine stressed the importance of simplicity during our conversation. "The problem is if you get too granular, you loose people," Levine told me. "They zone out!"

Levine saw success by getting right to the point when he first ran for Mayor of Miami Beach in 2013. Levine stressed just three practical points in a four-way mayoral election--an election more exciting than that in most other towns of just 90,000 residents. Levine's main opponent was Michael Góngora, an entrenched establishment politician who would have been Miami Beach's first openly gay mayor. As a regular on Spanish television networks, Góngora was already a familiar face to the city's Hispanic population. However, Levine had studied abroad in Spain as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. The experience provided Levine with just enough Spanish to make him a viable candidate in a city with a Hispanic population of fifty-three percent.

Levine was also up against a Yale graduate and comedian named Steve Berke. As part of his farfetched 2020 Vision plan for the city, Berke wanted to legalize marijuana and build a cable car system over Biscayne Bay to reduce traffic between Miami Beach and the mainland. Although MTV2 cameras documented Berke's entire run for office, his campaign did not gain much traction locally until Virgin Group CEO, Richard Branson endorsed his cable car idea. "Our customers fly into Miami International Airport every day and I think SkyLink is a breathtaking public transportation solution they would all enjoy," Branson said at the time.

The fourth candidate was Raphael Herman, whom The Miami Herald called the "perennial fringe candidate." The white haired, bearded 67-year old has run for Mayor of Miami Beach seven times and claims to have brandished Osama bin Laden in a knife fight. Despite his outlandish claims, he remains largely irrelevant, as he has never garnered more than one percent of the vote.

While Burke capitalized on the popularity of his YouTube channel and Góngora racked up endorsements from local officials, Levine built a reputation as the "Populist Millionaire" candidate. Although he spent an estimated $2 million of his own money, more than any other candidate who has run for Mayor of Miami Beach, he personally knocked on over four thousand doors around the city. He was also quick to remind the public that he qualified to run for Mayor through petition and not by paying the required fee.

Levine also hosted a series of "friendraisers" throughout his campaign. Campaign contributions were optional, and Levine got the check. But, opponents accused him of pandering to the elderly and nicknamed his friendraisers "Senior Prom." Others accused him of trying to use his wealth to influence the results of the election. His opponent, Steve Berke called him "a millionaire, maybe a billionaire, who woke up one day and decided he wanted to buy this election."

Nevertheless, Levine emphasized his status as "self-made." He once worked as a valet car parker and thought he would never be able to afford the cars he parked. "It was an out of body experience," he told me. Levine is also eager to tell the tale of how he started his career as a cruise ship lecturer, advising passengers on where to go and what to do at each port of call. Then, with five hundreds dollars of capital, he founded Onboard Media, a company he sold to LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton for a reported $300 million.

Levine's big campaign break came when President Clinton flew down to endorse him. "The first time I realized he had a legitimate chance to become Mayor was months ago when he did not ask me to come down and help," Clinton said at Levine's campaign headquarters. "Why do I say that? Because he was busy knocking on four thousand doors."

Ultimately, Levine won the four-way race with over fifty percent of the vote. Miami Beach was in crisis, and Levine promised to target the most pressing issues. Góngora, a former city commissioner, seemed like part of the problem. Berke seemed too lighthearted to tackle the weighty issues at stake.

First of all, Miami Beach seemed doomed to become the next Atlantis. Every time it rained, residents braced themselves for severe flooding, especially on Alton Road, one of the city's main thoroughfares. Worst of all, "sunny day flooding"--when water comes up through Miami Beach's porous limestone--regularly plagued the city as well. City officials seemed apathetic, even as rising sea levels worsened. Levine accused the city commissioners of being in a state of "analysis paralysis."

"They were hiring consultants who were hiring consultants who were hiring consultants," he told me later.

Just as resident were growing increasingly frustrated with having to detour around flooded streets, he released a campaign ad featuring himself paddling home from work on a kayak with his dog, Earl. The ad won him a coveted Pollie Award--regarded as "the Oscars of Political Advertising"--and the support of many of Miami Beach's most disillusioned residents.

Levine promised an immediate solution and he followed through, installing pumps, putting in flex valves and elevating streets during his first year in office. "I want to be Mayor of Miami Beach. I don't want to be Mayor of Venice," he told The Atlantic during his first term.

"It's a bold step in the right direction, compared to what other municipalities are doing," Ben Kirtman, a Climate Scientist at the University of Miami told me before tempering his statement. "In the near term, the next twenty or twenty-five years, what they're putting in place is very effective. But, if business as usual goes on until 2100, then the sea level rise challenges Miami Beach faces are truly profound," Kirtman added, essentially summarizing most of the criticism Levine received for his plan to stop flooding. While his efforts have seen immediate results, they might only last a couple of decades.

Levine's response to flooding came at a high cost: about $400 million dollar, the same as the city's annual budget. The city of Miami Beach underwrote the cost of the project entirely without help from state or federal actors. Despite the high cost of the plan, Levine insists the measures are necessary to maintain confidence in the city. "If people feel like the city is going under water, investment will dry, people's homes will loose value, insurance companies will stop writing policies and financing companies will stop financing," he explained.

Aside from putting an end to rampant flooding, Mayor Levine had another key goal. Throughout his campaign, he showed great determination to reform the city's police department, widely considered corrupt and unnecessarily aggressive following the Memorial Day shootings of 2011 when officers opened fire on Collins Avenue, one of Miami Beach's busiest streets and a beachside tourist hub. By most accounts, the Police Department's response did not do enough to restore resident's confidence. During his first term, Levine followed through on his promises and wound up firing the Police Department's entire command staff, an unprecedented move. "The dog barks much louder than it bites. And, we just did it," he said of the dismissals.

During his first campaign for Mayor, Levine also promised to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center, which plays host to Art Basel. An art fair that singlehandedly elevated Miami Beach's status from dopey resort town to global art capital, Art Basel has also prompted a massive building boom as the world's art-obsessed oligarch class now flocks to the city. Alan Faena--the eccentric Argentine billionaire investor who only wears white and usually sports a fedora or top hat--cited Art Basel as one of the key reasons he chose to develop his Faena District mega complex in Miami Beach. His new waterfront hotel features a colossal, $22 million Damien Hirst statue of a gold gilded wooly mammoth, a symbol for the art-centric excess that Basel brought to Miami Beach.

As Art Basel attracts over seventy-seven thousand visitors including some of the world's wealthiest art collectors, the Miami Beach Convention Center has truly become a gateway for investment in the city. Nonetheless, last September, Joey Flechas of The Miami Herald called the convention center "a tired old building, lacking in space and 21st century technology."

Despite pushback during his first term from commissioners citing the project's cost, Levine finally managed to get a renovation underway this year. Nonetheless, the project remains controversial. Levine was accused of overreaching when he suggested "repackaging" a Convention Center hotel proposal that voters rejected in a referendum.

This incident does not mark the first time Levine has been criticized for grasping for too much power. Last year, a local news anchor named Michael Putney accused Levine of "shaking down companies with Miami Beach city contracts" to raise money for Relentless for Progress, a PAC trying to elect a pro-Levine slate of city commissioners. Rather than back away from the accusations when Putney went on to write an op-ed in The Miami Herald, Levine defended himself on Putney's show. "I absolutely made calls and asked them to contribute to this," he told viewers of This Week in South Florida with Michael Putney. "In fact, I did more than make calls. I actually wrote a check myself."

Levine's handling of the controversy turned the matter into a blip. And, Levine had more than sixty percent of voters on his side when he ran for reelection in 2015.

Throughout his two-term tenure in office, Levine's leadership style has been characterized by vigor and theatrics. Levine has a sign in his office that reads, "The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack." He occasionally posts the mantra to Twitter and Facebook, and has said it in at least four interviews over the last few months. "You find that in any organization," he told me emphatically. "If you're running fast, everyone starts to run fast with you!"

When Levine was first elected Miami Beach Mayor, he sought to up the tempo among lethargic city employees anyway he could. "When you're mayor, you're basically like a platoon leader," he said. About a month after he entered office, City Manager Jimmy Morales invited him to meet all of his new employees at the annual holiday party. But, only a fraction of Miami Beach's two thousand employees were there. To his dismay, Levine found that a number of employees were deterred by a twenty-dollar holiday party fee. "Who charges to come to a holiday party," he asked. "That's bizarre."

In response, he decided to "shut the city down" and host all two thousand of the city's employees at an employee appreciation luncheon in the middle of the workday. No Mayor in Miami Beach history had ever shown such generosity. "They didn't really know me," Levine said. "They thought I was like Gordon Gekko from Wall Street. And, I would fire half of them and make the other half work for less money."

Instead, he told a group of police officers, sanitation workers, bureaucrats and others that working for the government of Miami Beach should be "the most fun job" in the world. "I don't do anything unless it's going to be fun. I just don't," he emphasized during our conversation.

Next, he told them that government culture was about to change in a major way. A mayor with a definitively private sector mentality, Levine sees Miami Beach residents as "customers"--and, he expects city employees to view them the same way. "They could live anywhere they want," he explained. "They chose Miami Beach, and we receive a lot of revenue from them."

To hone in on this point, he surprised his new employees by bringing out a Miami Beach "customer" they all recognized, NBA Coach Pat Riley of the Miami Heat. As far as Levine could see, nothing could be more inspirational than this Miami Heat basketball legend talking to them about teamwork and doing your best. His new employees seemed to agree. Since that first employee appreciation luncheon in 2013, Levine has hosted one every four months with Miami Beach "customers" like Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Pitbull and Ray Allen.

Throughout out his tenure as Mayor, Levine has also stressed attention to detail. "I am a pothole mayor," he told me when I asked him about a video he filmed with his iPhone and posted to Twitter. In the video, which went viral, Levine can be heard berating a FedEx driver for parking his truck in the middle of Alton Road, one of Miami Beach's busiest streets. "You're going to be hearing from our Chief of Police," Levine yells as the FedEx truck speeds away. While some on Twitter condemned Levine for being overly harsh, he defended his actions. "To me, the FedEx truck is a pothole because one of the major problems we have and most major cities have is with traffic and congestion," Levine explained.

Levine told me he models himself off of President Clinton. "The key to President Clinton's success is his love of people," said Levine who admires that Clinton has "off the charts" EQ and IQ. Levine will never forget when he and the former President visited the mythic Miami Beach restaurant, Joe's Stone Crab, and Clinton devoted all his attention to one Honduran busboy. "To President Clinton, he wasn't just a Honduran busboy," Levine said. "He was a person just as important as any millionaire"

Like Clinton, Levine strives to engage with people from all walks of life. He works hard to meet all his employees. He even walked from 1st to 81st Street to greet every lifeguard on the beach. "You're the city's front desk," he told them. He also embedded himself with the city's police department and polished the sidewalks to understand every employee's line of work.
Clinton and Levine may have their similarities. But, in many ways, Levine is a classically Bloombergian mayor. Like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Levine entered office as an abundantly wealthy political outsider. Also like Bloomberg, Levine has a distinctly private sector, pro-business mentality. Neither Bloomberg, nor Levine stood in the way of construction in their cities. And, while Levine ran as a Democrat and Bloomberg ran as a Republican, both seem to believe in action over ideology. "We figure it out. We think of solutions. We just do it," said Levine of his overarching leadership philosophy.

Mayor Levine has another two years left of his term. As of now, he hasn't ruled out the possibility of running for reelection, seeking the Democrat nomination for Florida governor in 2018 or "becoming president of a cruise line." The options seem unlimited for this vivacious Mayor whose leadership has successfully guided Miami Beach through an unce