MULTI-TALENTED ENTERTAINER-ACTIVIST STEVE BERKE SEEKS MAYORAL SEAT.
A native Floridian going back three generations, Steve Berke was born and raised in Miami-Dade County. Growing up in the tropics of Miami Beach, he spent most of his formative years becoming a tennis phenom. Steve won four state championships and two national championships while attending North Miami Beach High. Steve was a sought-after athletic commodity after graduation, but he turned down several lucrative endorsement contracts, instead choosing to further his education and delay the start of his professional tennis career.
Steve attended Yale University, played No. 1 for the Yale tennis team, and graduated with a B.A. in American Studies. While in school, Steve made collegiate tennis history, becoming the first unranked tennis player to make the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, an achievement that gave Yale its first All-American since Donald Dell in 1960. After graduation, Steve finally turned pro in tennis, but after only months on the tour, he herniated a disc in his lower back, tragically ending his career before it had a chance to begin.
Steve took up a new challenge. He became a contestant on a reality TV show airing on FOX called, The Rebel Billionaire – an Apprentice-like competition featuring Virgin Group CEO, Sir Richard Branson in the Trump role.
At 23-years-old, Steve was the youngest contestant on the show, yet survived 11 of the 13 episodes, impressing Branson with his entrepreneurial mind and instinct. One of the show’s challenges – to improve the service in Virgin’s Upper Class Suite – led to Steve forming his first company. His idea, the ‘Mooshpillow’ won the challenge and allowed Steve to dive head first into the pillow business.
Always looking for new challenges, Steve decided to pursue stand-up comedy. A few months into his stand-up career, in a true rock ‘n’ roll moment, Steve found his comedic voice. While hanging out in Berlin with Tyson Ritter (the lead singer of the All-American Rejects), Steve borrowed Tyson’s guitar and played him the first verse of a music parody he’d been working on. Although Steve was initially hesitant, Tyson convinced him to finish writing the song and to perform it on stage.
Fast-forward to today, and Steve has written more than 20 parodies, some that he performs live in comedy clubs, and some that he turns into viral YouTube videos. One of his videos, “Should Be Legalized,” an Eminem parody advocating the legalization of marijuana, received over 100,000 hits in the first two days of its release. However, opponents of the pro-Prop 19 video reported it to YouTube, and YouTube subsequently placed an NC-18 rating on the video, effectively killing any chance it had in becoming one of the top internet videos of the year. YouTube’s censoring of the video caused a widespread internet controversy and was under heavy criticism from both marijuana and free speech organizations.
The video, however, led Steve to consider a career in politics, especially after receiving overwhelmingly supportive messages from fans in more than 80 different countries. He hadn’t previously thought of becoming a political activist, but after NORML put his video on the main page of their website the week before the highly-publicized California Proposition 19 vote, he got support from the entire pro-marijuana community, gained a massive internet following and, seemingly overnight, became a face of the movement.
In 2011, Steve decided to take his activism to the next level and ran for mayor of Miami Beach. Using his comedic background and YouTube channel, Steve ran a campaign for the social media age, focusing his efforts on reaching out to young and disenfranchised voters. His platform included city employee pension reform, renovating the Miami Beach Convention Center, decriminalizing marijuana, and ending government corruption. The campaign was covered by local and national media alike, gracing the cover of Maxim Magazine and making the print edition of the New York Times (along with the front page of the online edition.) Ultimately, Steve surprised everyone by placing second out of the four candidates – garnering almost 30 percent of the votes cast on election day – and losing only to the two-term incumbent, Mayor Matti Bower.
SunPost decided to sit down with the funny and thoughtful candidate for mayor.
Michael W. Sasser: When was your interest in politics in general piqued?
Steve Berke: My parents have always been interested in politics, we discussed issues at the dinner table and I was raised to be engaged in my community – especially when it came to the civic responsibility of actually going out to vote. My parents made it clear that wars have been fought for our right to free elections, and that not voting, even in local elections, would be disrespectful to all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our democratic freedoms.
My transition from voter to political activist came right after I graduated from Yale and was embarking upon my career as a professional tennis player. I herniated two discs in my lower back, which not only ended my athletic career, but also had me living in excruciating pain for several years. I went to multiple doctors and sought any and all treatments that were available to me. However, after exhausting all these ineffective traditional treatments, I sought alternative options. Eventually, a doctor in California prescribed medical marijuana. It was the only treatment that alleviated my pain and chronic sciatica, and I soon realized that marijuana was a far better and less dangerous solution to potentially addictive prescription painkillers. That is when I became interested in the movement to decriminalize marijuana, which is something that I have been very openly supportive of, and campaigned for, previous to joining the 2011 mayoral race. As an aside, and I hate to disappoint the haters, but I am actually a very busy person and use cannabis infrequently – usually, when I just can’t think through my lower back pain.
What made you decide to run for mayor this year?
I can sum up why I decided to run for Mayor in two words: Philip Levine.
When I see a man trying to spend his way into the mayor’s office it makes me furious –this is our home, not his personal playground. This guy hadn’t voted in a local election, or attended a meeting at city hall before he woke up one morning and decided to buy his way into office. Now he is looking to spend a million dollars, or more, in an effort to get that mayoral parking spot he so clearly doesn’t deserve.
It makes my blood boil that someone could be so arrogant that he thinks the votes of my friends and neighbors are for sale. So, I decided that if Miami Beach residents want to vote for someone who is not a regular politician, then I had to give them a viable option. I honestly couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something to stop Levine mocking the spirit of our democracy with the obscene amount of money he is spending in this race. Miami Beach doesn’t need their own Rick Scott – the one in the Governor’s mansion is enough.
What did you learn from your previous campaign that you can use in this campaign?
The most important lesson that I learned was how much I genuinely cared about my friends and neighbors in Miami Beach. As I knocked on doors, be they in South Beach, North Shore, Mid Beach, Palm Island or elsewhere, I came to realize that we are all living together in this small but magnificent city, and that we all have the same concerns. We all want what is best for our family and friends, and we want the opportunity to make our lives a little better.
I really grew during the first campaign. I started out thinking I could use the campaign as a platform for my ideas on decriminalizing marijuana. But, after a few weeks of speaking with residents, something changed inside me; I realized I truly wanted to help residents enrich their lives, that I had a voice, and that I could serve, not just people like me, but all the residents of our city. This year, I’m fortunate enough to be able to start this campaign with that knowledge. I have matured as a candidate, and I think that’s going to make all the difference.
Do you feel you can compete with candidates with deep pockets on one hand; and one familiar to voters who is also likely to have very deep campaign funding?
Well, I have no choice but to compete with the candidates in the race.
When it comes to funding, it is true that Philip Levine is trying to buy the mayor’s office. And don’t take my word for it, do the math yourself. The 2012 Presidential Election was the most expensive in the history of the world. President Obama spent $985.7 million on his campaign, which is around $3.16 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. So far, Philip Levine has already spent nearly double that– around $5.69 per head of population in Miami Beach – and that’s only up until June 30th. Therefore, at this rate, he is probably going to triple or quadruple that. Are we really going to embarrass Miami Beach by electing a guy who hasn’t even voted in a local election because he is willing to spend more money to become mayor than many of the electorate will earn in a lifetime? What kind of a message does that send to our young people – a generation already turned off by the BS in politics?
Yes, Michael Gongora also has deep pockets and, as a commissioner, is familiar to voters, but I believe that the voters will decide that I am the better candidate.
Without revealing anything you don’t want made public, what is your strategy for success?
My strategy for success is simple: work hard, get my message out there, and be faithful to the people of Miami Beach. I have a great team, and by communicating our ideas effectively we will win this election.
What from your previous experiences and work do you think will assist you in this campaign?
As a professional athlete, I learned the importance of preparation, work ethic, and, of course, how to compete. But, more importantly, I learned what it takes to win. In my business ventures, I have realized that things are not always what they seem, but if you want to know the truth, then all you have to do is follow the money. As to my work in entertainment, be it performing my music parodies or producing videos that have been watched by more than 25 million viewers, I have learned to communicate my message with honesty and integrity. All these skills will be useful when I’m serving as your mayor.
What are the primary issues you are running on, platform-wise?
I will be running against corruption and fiscal irresponsibility. I will be for decriminalizing marijuana, and for finding solutions to the problems that plague us all, such as flooding, traffic flow, parking, towing, and the increasing lack of faith in our police department.
What do you hear from residents when walking and talking? And what do you tell them?
Like me, residents are concerned that they are not getting the best bang for their buck from the City. They are concerned about their taxes being poorly managed, and that the priorities of our current commission are not in their best interests.
How would a Berke administration differ from a Bower administration?
Well, I don’t think you can really see it as a Berke administration, as such. The mayor does not have an executive position and, in fact, only has one vote, just like the commissioners. My priorities as mayor will clearly be different from Mayor Bower’s, however, as reflected by my platform.
What are your thoughts on the plans under negotiation for the Miami Beach Convention Center development?
I am not at all convinced that the commission has gotten the best deal for our taxpayers. They made a grave mistake by not securing monies from Miami-Dade County for the project, and I am worried that the costs are likely to go up way more than anticipated, so we could end up with a Marlins Stadium-style debacle right here on our doorstep.
Do you believe that Miami Beach voters should be allowed to vote on approval of the eventual final plans for the MBCC project?
Do you feel the City had adequately addressed its high-profile problems with corruption in city hall?
Absolutely not – when it comes to addressing the scandals in our city, I think the commission has a long way to go. In fact, I think most of them should go somewhere else entirely, and make way for new faces with fresh ideas.
What, if anything, do you think a Berke-led City could and would do about the union pension obligations and the increasing stress they are causing on the City’s fiscal situation?
I am extremely unlikely to receive any union endorsements, so, I will not owe the unions anything when elected. Therefore, with the mandate of the people of Miami Beach, I will be able to push for much tougher negotiations with the unions. We must get the best deal for our residents. Public servants should, of course, be fairly compensated, but if they want to get rich, then they should probably take their chances in the private sector.
What is your confidence level in supervision of the Miami Beach Police in light of several years of, you know, shooting people, running them over and beating the snot of gays?
There is a growing concern among residents that our police department is overpaid and out of control. In recent years people have been run-over, shot, and viciously beaten up by officers. Yet there seems to be no accountability and investigations take so long that the public no longer has faith in the system. This police brutality and abuse of power must stop. We have an entire generation that is growing up to fear the police rather than see them as their protectors and public servants. It is imperative that we restore faith in our police department.
Florida has a history of problems with steroid use among police officers. So, anyone who thinks the entire MBPD is clean of steroids probably believes that all of professional baseball is clean as well. Miami Beach residents deserve to know that when a police officer discharges his weapon, his mental and emotional state aren’t compromised by the hormonal imbalance that steroids can cause. Therefore, it makes sense that when a police officer discharges a weapon, or is involved in any violent altercation, that officer should immediately be tested for all drugs including steroids and HGH. If athletes are tested for these drugs, then shouldn’t the testing of our police officers, who have more than just medals and trophies on the line, be taken as seriously?
What have you done since your previous campaign to further engage with city residents?
I served on the Community Development Advisory Committee for the City of Miami Beach. I have also remained engaged in the community, attending meetings at city hall and speaking out on issues affecting residents, such as the convention center deal among other things.
Why the mayor’s seat, as opposed to a commission run?
I did give some very serious thought to running for a commission seat this time. However, as mentioned above, the candidacy of Philip Levine made took that option from me.
Do you feel the City of Miami Beach is headed in the right or wrong direction, and how so?
Clearly, by the fact that I am running to be mayor, I don’t think we are heading in the right direction. I think we need to change our priorities, and I think we need someone with fresh ideas. I think I am that person, and when they get to meet me and hear my plan, I think the voters of Miami Beach will agree.