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TALLAHASSEE (AP) — When Florida billionaire Jeff Greene ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, he was depicted by the media as a party boy who associated with people like former boxer Mike Tyson and actress Lindsay Lohan.
Now that he’s running for governor, he said he still throws lots of parties, but the celebrity he’s most likely to invite is Elmo from Sesame Street.
“In 2010, I had just been married for three years, I had one very young baby. My life was in the process of going through a big change,” Greene said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Here I am eight years later, and thank God I have three beautiful sons … When you have kids who are starting to grow you start thinking about things like education and what kind of world they’re going to have.”
He’s coached little league and recently opened a private school in West Palm Beach.
“We were frustrated with the school options, the public schools and the private schools, around this area, so we started our own school. We basically did a need-blind school,” Greene said. “It’s been so fulfilling that I realized that making a big difference in people’s lives is really what I most enjoy doing, and being in business and making money and doing deals is not as fulfilling.”
Greene quietly got in the race less with less than three months before the Aug. 28 primary. His primary opponents — former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando-area businessman — have been campaigning for months, and yet about half the Democratic voters haven’t made up their mind.
Greene, who is worth close to $4 billion, made his fortune through real estate investments. He lost the 2010 Democratic primary in a landslide to then-U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek despite spending $30 million of his own money. He said he’s learned a lot about messaging. The media focus on Greene then was often on his ties to celebrities and stories about his yacht, including a stop it made in Cuba during the U.S. travel ban to the island.
“We have lots and lots of parties and our guest of honor is usually Elmo or Batman,” Greene said. “I’m certainly not going to let people make up stories about me and get away with it this time.”
Greene grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, in a middle-class family. His father sold equipment to textile mills and his mother stayed at home and taught Hebrew school on Sundays, he said. But then the mills closed.
“My dad lost everything,” Greene said. “He moved to Florida with the few pennies that he had.”
His father worked restocking vending machines at hotels, and his mother waited tables at the luxurious Breakers hotel.
“People say, ‘Jeff, you’re an out-of-touch Palm Beach millionaire. How can you possible know what people go through?’ I say, ‘Let me tell you something: I know exactly what people go through,'” he said.
Like outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Greene plans to spend millions of his own money on the campaign. He noted that Scott barely won each of his two elections and said the difference was the personal checks he wrote.
“He’s not exactly the guy you’d look to as an ideal political figure,” Greene said. “He’s so far to the right, he doesn’t come off in a particular articulate or charming way, but what he does do is come up with $120 million and buries the Democrats.”
He said he and his wife have already decided to give half their money away to philanthropic causes, and he sees investing in the election as another way he can help improve people’s lives.
“We’re going to give all this money away anyway, what we really want to do is make a big impact and a difference in the world and make people’s lives better,” he said. “Whether we spend $100 million, $50 million, $200 million — whatever it is, we will spend whatever it takes to make sure that our message is heard at least equally to what the Republican message has been.”
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