By Hana Frenette—
On Nov. 1, Philip Levine, Mayor of Miami Beach. formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida.
While he isn’t a household name—yet—the 55-year-old entrepreneur, businessman, and politician has steadily gained recognition across the state for his stance on sea-level rise, climate change, AirBnB
rentals, a higher statewide minimum wage and the actions of the GOP.
The unconventional Boston-born candidate sat down with Business Climate to discuss his overall vision for Florida if elected Governor, the resilience of the American dream, and the challenges he faced during his two terms as Miami Beach mayor.
You’re originally from Boston, what brought you to Miami Beach?
Well I moved to South Beach when I was 10 years old. My family said they were moving and I decided I would go with them. I grew up in Hollywood, Florida, and went to public school from the fifth grade on.
You earned a degree in Political Science from the University of Michigan—what initially drew you to politics? What did you plan to do with the degree?
I always loved international affairs and history, and I felt that political science could be a good mix of those things. I thought it was a fun degree—I never thoughts I’d actually use it, and thank god, I finally did.
What did you do once you graduated college?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I started working as a little boy when I was 8, shoveling snow off the front porches of houses in Boston. I made one dollar per porch and I’d get these wet dollar bills, take them home and put them on the radiator until they got crisp.
I’ve had just about every job you can think of— scooping ice cream, parking cars at hotels, restaurant dishwasher, and washing cars. I was always encouraged to work since I was little, and I’ve worked my entire life. I found that working is a great way to understand people.
In the early 90s, with only $500 in start up capita, you started a media company called Onboard Media, in a studio apartment, which ended up being a very successful port-marketing company. Tell me about the decision to create that company and what the overall goals were for the venture.
After college, I still hadn’t found what I really wanted to do. My life changed when I answered an ad in the Miami Herald, for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line— a tiny company with 3-4 cruise ships. They were looking for someone to go on board their ships and give lectures on what they could expect at each port, where to shop, where to eat. I told them I was a great public speaker— even though I’d never done it before, and they really needed someone, so next thing I knew, I was on a a cruise ship. My cabin was below the water line, I was terrified, and I thought I had made terrible decision. All I could think was, how do I get off this ship? Maybe I could call the coast guard? I kept going and prepared to give my first lecture. I thought there probably wouldn’t be many people there anyway, and when I walked out to begin speaking there were over 1500 passengers in the room for the lecture. For me, that was a turning point. I became pretty good at speaking publicly from that job and I fell into an amazing industry. I worked for several months on board the cruise ship, and shortly after that experience I started my own company in 1990. Eventually we merged with a partner to create On Board Media and we became the largest partner in the world to the cruise ship industry. We created everything from onboard media, TV advertisements, and port marketing. In 2000 I sold the company to Louis Vuitton. After that I began acquiring and dealing in commercial real estate, and helping to restart companies in South Florida.
How did you become involved in politics?
It had actually begun early on when I became friends with the young mayor of Miami-Dade County, Alex Penelas. I became involved in supporting him and we formed a friendship. Through Mayor Penelas, I met this gentleman named Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton and I built a wonderful relationship and friendship. After I sold my company and was no longer president, I was fortunate enough to travel with him and to mentor with him‑one of greatest political leaders of our time.
In 2013, you were elected Mayor of Miami Beach. What issues did you focus most on during your fist term? What have you continued to focus your attention on?
It was a very interesting election. One of our biggest issues here and all across the state, especially in coastal cities, is seal-level rise. And one of the things I really pushed was that if I was elected mayor, I wanted to attack that problem immediately. It was a four-way race, I won in a landslide with over 50 percent of the votes, and I believe it’s because everything I’ve done is different.
What were some of the things you did differently than the other candidates?
I made a lot of direct contact with the people. I knocked on 6000 doors, met the voters, talked with them, went directly to them through social media, and ran a really fun TV commercial. In the commercial, I was paddling down one of our main streets with a yellow slicker on and my dog with me, and I said, “Some people want to be the mayor of Venice—I want to be the mayor of Miami Beach.” Water was pouring on his head and I’m telling Earl, my dog to paddle faster.
As Mayor of Miami Beach, you’ve publicly called for action on issues relating to climate change. What current or recent climate change initiates are you working on or been successful with in the past? What do you plan to work toward next?
Since the election, we’ve become an international leader on fighting sea-level rise and resiliency; we’ve put $500 million toward the project of raising the sea wall, raising the street levels and creating a great water pump system. We’ve had incredible success with the project. Since we started the project, I’ve been able to speak about the topic in several documentaries—one with Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic called Before the Flood, and another called An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, by Al Gore. One of our major achievements was not only helping bring national attention to the issue, but becoming the first coastal city to successfully build resiliency against sea-level rise.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments as Mayor of Miami Beach during your two terms?
We’ve done a lot. After these two terms, we’ll be completing a new convention center. Before I took office, we had a police force that many would describe as the “tail wagging the dog,” with international headlines that were not positive. We had horrible shootings involving our police department, and we were able or recruit one of the great chiefs of police to our police force and were able to change the culture of a police force with troubled past. We were the first city in the state to pass a minimum living wage. The minimum wage was $8.25 and we have passed a new minimum wage law that will have minimum wage starting at $13.31 by 2021. We’ve been sued by Publix and by the State of Florida—we believe this issue will go all the way to Supreme Court. We’ve also connected the entire city with a free trolley system, which was a pretty monumental task. We have an area in Miami Beach, called North Beach, which was a very depressed and underserved area. Over the last several years we’ve been able to turn this area into a really hip, happening spot with significant vibrant growth. Another thing we’re very proud of is the fact that we’ve received a perfect score from the Human Rights
Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, along with only a few other cities in the country.
I think the biggest challenge I’ve encountered as mayor is making sure that the other folks sitting with you will follow you. You have to not only listen to them, but to your constituents—that is always going to be a challenge to anyone in a political position. Treat your constituents as vested interest; figure out a way to get everyone moving in the right direction for the community. We did have a big challenge here, and we were able to really convince people this new thing called Climate Change is real and the resulting sea level rise was something we needed to take action on immediately. We explained to people that their livelihood and their futures are depending on investing in resiliency. That was a major communications campaign we had to run to get the buy in from our community.
You’ve helped establish a number of successful Miami Beach-based businesses. How were you able to make this happen, and how much of an impact has it had on the local economy? Do you believe Pensacola can make similar strides in order to find economic success with job growth?
If you take some of the leading Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Bowing, and you read their HR manuals, you’ll see one of the main things they believe in is treating their people really, really well. If you treat people well and offer them educational opportunities, healthcare and childcare they’ll actually work harder and the company will prosper more.
If you try and make your community a place you actually want to live and work, you’ll actually get people to continue opening up operations here. We’re trying to create ecosystems of culture in Florida— and we’re not doing that through corporate incentives, we’re doing it by creating a culture of excellence.
We want to have the best universities that turn out the best graduates who are then able to handle these great positions, while possibly committing to work in Florida for a certain time period. We need to have the most state-of-the-art transportation public transportation throughout the state available for everyone. We need to create an environment that is pristine and be a state that is concerned and forthright in maintaining and keeping our environment and waterways clean.
GE is moving their world headquarters to Boston—and they did it because Boston has all the right stuff: the finest education, incredible pubic transportation and infrastructure, which helps create a great environment for these companies.
Our current governor believes that $8.25 an hour service jobs are the way to go here—and if you want a state of Wal-Marts and McDonalds, then that’s great, but my vision is very different. I’d like to see more opportunities for more experienced positions, higher paying jobs, and innovation. And we have NASA— I call NASA our Silicon Valley. We need to build upon NASA, or what we can create there for Florida.
You’ve announced that you will run for Governor in 2018. What’s motivated you to run for this role? Is this something you’ve considered for a long time or a recent possibility?
I’m running for Governor because I love helping people. I truly believe in the American dream, and I think the Florida dream is the same. I could run for a third term, but everything I said we were going to do, we’ve either done or it’s in process of being done. Change is good. I’d rather take my sills and abilities to the state level and help the entire state. I’ve enjoyed meeting people in other towns all across the state, listening to the customers, the voters, residents, and hearing what they have to say. I have a vision for the entire state.
If you’re elected Governor, what are a few of your top tasks you plan to tackle once in office?
One of the first things I plan to address is making sure our sea-level has plan in place. With my experience in Miami Beach I can roll out a plan statewide and make sure we have a chief resiliency officer. We will work with the local communities to make our state is the leader in resiliency.
The second issue I’d focus on is that of local elected officials being dictated to by Tallahassee. They have this preemption in Tallahassee, where they want to preempt the ability of local communities. Government is best closest to the people. Communities should be able to decide what cable company they want, or how they feel about AirBnB—on a local level.
One big issue I heard about from a lot of people who were working service jobs, was that they felt like they needed to make more because they cant survive, even with two, sometimes three jobs. So minimum wage is something to discuss statewide.
I’ve also heard from a lot of folks that we need to invest more in our pubic schools—that needs to be a major priority with state of Florida. If you don’t like the idea of your kid leaving and going to work in another city, we need to create an ecosystem here that includes great education for everyone and great opportunities for everyone.
Folks are a little flipped out over their healthcare these days. We don’t think this affordable healthcare act is the greatest thing on earth, but it’s better than using the ER as our healthcare system. Why don’t we make it better and make it so everyone has the chance to have health insurance? That’s something I heard from everyone—going backwards is not the answer.
Tell me about your time on the board of directors for Best Buddies International? Why have you chosen to spend your time with this organization?
I got involved with Best Buddies International through a friend, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, his mother was Ida Shriver who started special Olympics. Anthony started this in college and as I got to know him, I saw the incredible work this organization does and how they help folks with developmental disabilities. I saw first hand how amazing it is and how they make people feel like they really do have friend. The organization is a great example of the Kennedy legacy: doing good for people.
You recently chartered a flight with 7,000 pounds of supplies to help San Juan following a hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico. Why did you feel the need to help and how did you make it happen?
My expression as mayor was “just get it done.” I felt very frustrated by how inept and paralyzed Washington was in aiding a part of our country, Puerto Rico, and felt it would be a great example to get a plane, fill it with life-saving supplies, coordinate with the mayor of San Juan, and say, ‘look what I’m doing—you can do it too.’ The White House took note of it and it spurred dozens of other relief flights. These are Americans and they are in need, how in the world could we not help them? I was incredibly disappointed in the reaction of our federal government.
What advice would you give to citizens who are eager to make their community and economy better?
I think the most important thing is to get involved. When I ran for mayor of Miami Beach, I had friends who said ‘you’re crazy, you don’t need it.’ But I wasn’t doing it for the money or the recognition. I’m doing it because if folks like me don’t do it, who is going to do it? I wanted to make the city better. I would encourage anyone who wants the same to get out there and get involved. Volunteer at a charity or find a way to become active in your community—and getting active doesn’t meet sitting on your couch and making comments on Facebook or Twitter.