Change Agent


When Miami Beach voters elected businessman Philip Levine as mayor of Miami Beach in November, in a four-man race, without a run-off, it took many by surprise. Not only was Levine then a relative political newcomer, but also, one of his competitors was a sitting commissioner with name recognition and years of experience in city hall on his side.

Levine, though, said he wasn’t surprised by the time Election Day rolled around.

“I had a feeling for a couple of reasons,” Levine told SunPost this week. “One is that we were doing extensive polling throughout the campaign. We noticed that our numbers continued to rise while my main opponent’s numbers stayed about the same. Secondly, at the end, we had polling data that showed I was going to win without a runoff.

“More importantly was that I was going door-to-door the whole campaign and talking to people,” he continued. “They were overwhelmingly positive, among Hispanics and Anglos. So, there was polling data and my own personal polling. I had always been what I would say was ‘cautiously optimistic.’”

Levine’s optimism materialized as fact when he won with a large enough percentage of votes that he avoided a run-off – presumably with his chief opponent, then-Commissioner Michael Gongora, who was considered by many to be the favorite in the race. His victory also came in a race that, at times, was particularly ugly. Alleged misreporting in other media and third-party mailers at one time attempted to paint Levine as being anti-Hispanic. One particularly egregious campaign mail piece even featured a doctored photo of Levine with a certain pair of Castro brothers well known in the Cuban-American community.

However, Levine points out that the numbers he raked in clearly demonstrate broad support.

“The election clearly signaled how much the world has changed,” he said. “No one wins an election in Miami Beach without huge Hispanic support. Fifty-three percent of the city is Hispanic and they were instrumental to my winning. I believe the accusations leveled against me insulted them, because they had met me personally.

“We have an African-American president elected to a second term – he must have gotten a lot of white votes,” Levine continued. “Detroit just elected a white mayor and I think the city is something like 80 percent African-American. What happened in Miami Beach is that people said they didn’t care if a candidate was Hispanic or Anglo or gay or from Mars. They care that the candidate is competent. It’s a shame that other media didn’t listen before and read the results afterward and celebrate what happened.”

Competence might well have been a key to Levine’s success. While he is a relative political newcomer and critics accused him of not being an engaged voter and for spending his own money on his campaign, his successes in business are inarguable. In 1990, with only $500 in capital, Levine launched Onboard Media, a start-up business that originated in a studio apartment above the News Café on Ocean Drive. Designed as a port-marketing program for the cruise industry, the company expanded to publish 85 in-stateroom magazines and to produce award-winning TV programming. Once Levine had grown Onboard Media into an $85 million company, he partnered with Berkshire Partners to acquire Starboard Cruise Services. The successful merger resulted in the world’s largest duty-free and media partner in the cruise industry, with a revenue of about $400 million. In 2000, Philip sold the company to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, creating the largest cruise industry concessionaire/partner in the world. For the past decade, Philip has also been an active real estate investor, with prominent projects in Miami Beach. Philip invested in Sunset Harbor, helping to transform the former industrial neighborhood into a vibrant, friendly destination for shopping and dining.

Levine might have been better known in larger political circles than that of Miami Beach. He was involved in the Clinton Global Initiative and in 2010, was tapped by the Obama Administration to serve on a task force advising on U.S. tourism.

Now, a new type of challenge awaits Levine, who believes that both his election and city voters’ rejection of incumbents in this year’s commission races, represents a mandate for change in a city recently beset with corruption and controversy. Levine said he believes he can work with the new city commission.

“People didn’t whisper that they wanted change; they shouted it,” he said. “It was the shout heard around the Beach. The new commission and I have a mandate to fix what’s broken, keep what works and to move on. I believe the commission we have shares that mindset. My goal is to gain consensus and move ahead.”

Levine welcomes the ideas of his commission colleagues and said he doesn’t care who gets credit for successes. “We have commissioners with great intellect and ideas.”

More of a challenge, Levine said, is “focus, focus, focus. I found out in business that you shouldn’t try to tackle too much at once. I learned not to try to do too many things at once.”

What he doesn’t see as a challenge is bringing people together to work toward common goals. He said his vote total and the commission election results, which were a clear repudiation of incumbents, mean relative cohesion shouldn’t be a problem. “I think the city is together,” he said.

Just how united the city is, and how well the new commission will work together, are likely to be on display as Levine pushes ahead on his four top priorities: addressing ongoing flooding issues; getting the convention center renovation back on track in a fair and transparent deal for residents; streamlining the long-criticized permitting process; and fixing problems in the Miami Beach Police Department, where Levine says, “we have an issue with the culture in the department.”

Levine was a fierce critic of the pre-election process revolving around the planned renovation of the convention center – a process some felt included deceptive dissemination of information and which Levine criticized for its lack of transparency and plan to lease public land to a private developer.

However, Levine is not opposed to renovating the MBCC.

“We believe we need to re-look at this entire program and come up with an approach that allows us to expedite the process in a transparent way that fits in with the community’s desire,” Levine said.”Resident spoke up loudly in the election and the convention center was part of that shout. I’ve already sat down with the city manager, looking at the entire existing deal. I wanted to see how the program can be changed; I don’t believe we want to sell or transfer rights for public property to a private developer.”

Levine said he believes the program could be changed and the project done in a transparent fashion and that would “create something really exciting.”

In terms of how the Levine Administration will be different than that of Matti Bower, the long-time mayor who lost her electoral bid to return to city hall as a commissioner, the new mayor cited factors that reflect his business acumen.

“I’m very pro-active, not reactive and we take the long view,” Levine said. “One of my skill sets from the private sector is the ability to motivate people and follow through in execution.”

About Michael W Sasser


  1. Dear Mr. Sasser,
    Your article regarding Philip Levine was an excellent one. I do not know Mayor Levine personally but my contact with him was a very positive one.

    I am a very active senior. My favorite sport is called Pickleball. It’s very popular in the retirement communities in Florida. I have been a snowbird. Up north on Long Island in communities such as
    Easthampton and Sag Harbor, Pickleball is all the rage.

    Nobody in SOBE has ever heard of it. It’s played on court smaller than a tennis court, played with a wiffle ball and a paddle. It’s great for hand eye coordination but less running as on a tennis court.
    I asked Mayor Levine after explaining the benefits of Pickleball to him, if he would consider allowing a pickleball set up in Flamingo Park.

    Yesterday, December 19th, the first pickleball court was assembled in Flamingo Park!!!!! Thank you Mr. Mayor, for all the senior citizens In SOBE!!

    Rena Rosenfeld

  2. Yes indeed the people spoke in November.

    The first real test for this “new” commission will come in January when they sit to make Land Use Board Appointments. In many, very significant ways; LUB decisions can and do have far reaching impacts on the quality of life and future of Miami Beach. It shall be interesting to see who the “new” commissioners appoint to fill the vacancies and who they decide not to reappoint.

    As for the rest time will tell on how much change Mayor Levine can affect on the long entrenched machine that exists at 1700 Convention Center Drive.

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