TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — With time running short before vote-by-mail ballots go out next month, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene on Wednesday formally entered a crowded Democratic slate of candidates seeking to replace Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Greene, 63, joined four Democrats — former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Orlando-area businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — who’ve already held three debates, spent months courting grassroots voters and dumped millions of dollars on advertising in advance of the Aug. 28 primary.
Greene, who lives two doors down from President Donald Trump’s “winter White House” Mar-A-Lago and has a net worth of $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, traveled on his private plane with his wife, Mei Sze Chan, and three young sons to Tallahassee to file qualifying papers Wednesday.
Greene pooh-poohed questions from reporters about a potential disadvantage his late entry might pose, saying he is the only candidate with the cash to win over voters.
“As Democrats, we’ve had great ideas for the last 20 years, and we’ve had great candidates for 20 years. But do you know what the problem is? Not one candidate has had the wherewithal or the funds to get their message out to the people of Florida. So, great ideas are wonderful, and it’s nice to have them, but I want to win this election,” Greene said.
Like Greene, Levine, a wealthy entrepreneur who made a fortune in the cruise industry, is spending his own money on the race, already pumping at least $8 million into his campaign.
Greene, meanwhile, has said he “will spend whatever’s needed to get the message out” to capture the Democratic nomination.
Greene emphasized his humble beginnings in Massachusetts, saying his parents moved to Florida after his father’s fortunes crashed. His mother later worked as a waitress, and Greene worked three jobs, including as a busboy at the tony Breakers Palm Beach Hotel, he said Wednesday. Greene later made billions as a real estate and investment mogul.
In one of two ads released this week, Greene portrays himself as a family man with a rags-to-riches story that epitomizes the American dream.
“I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to have a family,” he told reporters, saying he has the “compassion” and the most experience for the job as governor.
Greene’s gubernatorial bid isn’t his first foray into politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010, earning 31 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, compared to former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek’s 57.5 percent. Meek went on to lose the general election to Republican Marco Rubio.
Greene also lost a bid in 1982 as a Republican for a congressional seat in California.
In the governor’s race, vote-by-mail ballots will start going out to many voters July 24 — and even earlier in July for overseas voters. But Greene won’t have to worry about quickly raising money to compete if he decides to self-fund his campaign as he did in 2010, when he spent nearly $23 million in his Senate bid. The cash he spent on ads catapulted the virtual unknown into being tied with Meek in the polls heading into the summer primary.
But that was eight years ago, and campaigns — and voters — in Florida have evolved, said Screven Watson, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.
“This is a new day, so who knows. Traditionally, I would have said no way, no how, he can win. It’s just too late and he hasn’t laid the necessary foundation. But that’s politics of the past. This is a new world. This is a Trump world. This is a world where people get in and throw bombastic statements around and people cheer,” Watson, who is not affiliated with any of the Democrats’ campaigns, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
In addition to being late to the game, Greene could also face backlash from his opponents, along with Democratic primary voters, for being a Republican-turned-Democrat, for unflattering reports of raunchy parties aboard his yacht in the past and for his associations with figures such as Mike Tyson, who was Greene’s best man at a celebrity-studded wedding in 2007.
And, while his fortune is certainly an asset, Greene may be vulnerable over favorable remarks he made about Trump shortly after the president’s election in November 2016.
In an interview with Forbes, Greene said he supported Hillary Clinton in the election but urged Democrats to get behind Trump “and not think about voting him out of office,” noting his non-political background may give him an opportunity “to look at everything with fresh eyes.”
Perhaps seeking to mitigate those remarks, one of the two ads Greene released this week featured a grainy video of the candidate and Trump going head-to-head at Mar-A-Lago. His campaign said the video, filmed by Greene’s wife, was taken during a confrontation in which Trump blasted Greene for backing Clinton.
Greene, who casually mentioned that he is friends with prominent billionaire Warren Buffett, told reporters Wednesday that Trump became “unhinged” during the episode at the private club, where Greene is also a member.
Greene, who with his wife runs a private school, said education would be one of his chief priorities.
He also said he’ll reach out to Democrats throughout the state in addition to spending money on advertising, saying the Democratic message — “equal opportunity for all” — is the way to win over voters.
“There are more Democrats, and I think more independents absolutely lean Democratic. The problem is that we have not had the funds to compete with the Republican onslaught, the Republican amount of money that has been two to three times what we’ve been able to spend. So, will I put my money behind our message? Yes, I will,” he said.
“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”