CHANGE COMES FAST TO MAYORAL RACE WITH LIBBIN WITHDRAWAL.
The race to supplant Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower in the center seat-throne of the city commission dais was shaken up last week when Jerry Libbin announced he was withdrawing from the race.
With no notable advance warning, the Libbin campaign issued a press release last Wednesday night, July 24, announcing the decision.
“I am immediately suspending my campaign for Miami Beach Mayor and withdrawing from the race. I do so with a heavy heart, and after extensive talks with my family and closest supporters,” asserted the press release, which was stamped with the signature of Libbin, a current Beach commissioner. “As my campaign was about to enter a new, more intense phase in the coming weeks, I realized I would be stretched too thin. When I take on a new challenge, I put everything I have into it. Unfortunately, it became apparent that I would not able to give my campaign – and the voters – my very best while also fulfilling my other obligations.
“I take my responsibilities very seriously,” the release continued. “These include serving as President and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, and serving out my current term as a Miami Beach Commissioner through the election. Of course, my family and my other civic endeavors also are very important to me.
“I want to thank my supporters who have helped me and my campaign with their selfless and generous contributions of time and money. I am forever grateful.”
Libbin declined to answer additional questions or to clarify the reasoning for his decision when approached by SunPost. The announcement came as a shock to many. The veteran commissioner was considered one of the favorites based on name recognition and ability to raise money, along with fellow current Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora and entrepreneur Philip Levine.
However, according to multiple sources inside or with lengthy ties to city hall, Libbin might have revealed the impetus for his decision in his reference to his role with the chamber of commerce. Those sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested the influential chamber might not be pleased with the scrutiny Libbin would inevitably face as the election approaches and campaigning traditionally turns negative. Cited was Libbin’s commission voting record, although no one offered a single specific example. It is notable, perhaps, that Libbin made his announcement just days after siding with a commission majority to award a $1 billion-plus development deal for the Miami Beach Convention Center to the politically-connected South Beach ACE over its rival, Portman-CMC – a group offering a better financial deal for taxpayers, a much quicker timeline and which had the support of the city administration, two citizens’ committees and some of the largest organizations that produce trade shows in the world. Only maverick Commissioner Jonah Wolfson and Commissioner Ed Tobin voted the other way on the issue, which is headed to a public referendum this year that is already being compared to the historic Save Miami Beach (SMB) campaign. SMB was a humiliating moment for local politicians, the Chamber of Commerce and for developers’ sway over city hall when the public overwhelmingly voted to help preserve some open space and reasonable development requirements for waterfront parcels.
But the referendum issue is still a hot-button issue as Libbin steps away from the mayoral race.
Libbin’s withdrawal leaves the Gongora-Levine matchup as the marquee matchup for the mayoral seat this November. Other candidates in the mayoral race include Steve Berke, a bright and charismatic comedian with a penchant for public policy, and relative unknowns David Hundley and Raphael Herman – neither of which is likely to raise enough money to be competitive in a city in which victory historically requires an astronomical amount of money per vote.
Gongora was surprised by the announcement.
“I was surprised by Commissioner Libbin’s announcement,” Gongora said. “He seemed to be moving well on all fronts; specifically, as commissioner, Chamber president and mayoral candidate. I understand too well that campaigning is grueling work. Commissioner Libbin has chosen to concentrate his efforts on his other duties. I appreciate how we have always treated each other as statesmen whether as colleagues or competitors. I was looking forward to exchanging thoughts with him during the debates and forums before election day.”
Gongora also believes that the move will affect the nature of the campaign. “Commissioner Libbin’s withdrawal certainly affects the election landscape. Since he was elected, Commissioner Libbin has worked diligently to preserve and enhance the city’s unique and vibrant character. He earned and continues to earn the trust of the citizens of Miami Beach through his continued service and dedication. His withdrawal gives me an opportunity to reach out to his supporters and engage them into my vision for a quality, sustainable, diverse and vibrant Miami Beach. His supporters and friends value his platform of service and will find I bring that same ethic. Like Commissioner Libbin, my service has hinged on working to be part of the solution.”
The way Levine sees it, Libbin’s withdrawal gives voters a clear and obvious choice.
“I respect Commissioner Libbin’s decision and I feel it really allows the residents of Miami Beach to evaluate the two leading candidates – myself and Commissioner Gongora – on the issues,” Levine told SunPost. “It makes the situation less cloudy and also might eliminate the possibility of a run-off. Voters will be able to concentrate more on our differences on the issues.”
Levine is CEO of Royal Media Partners, an exclusive partner of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. From its Alton Road offices, Royal Media Partners handles the creation of all the media for Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises ships sailing in the Caribbean and Alaska. He was founder of Onboard Media, which grew from a $500 startup in 1990 to being sold to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy after it grew to be an $85 million company. He also cites achievements as a real estate investor in the Sunset Harbor neighborhood, saying his efforts helped transform the area into the community it is today.
Levine sees a real difference between him and Gongora.
“If you are happy with how things are on Miami Beach with the corruption, flooding and entirely political convention center vote, then [Gongora] is your candidate,” Levine said. “You have your candidate who represents the past. If you are looking for new blood with practical skills and achievements and no desire to benefit the public, then you have a choice in me.”
Levine pointed out the way his campaign is different than others. He said he intends to take a salary as mayor of only $1 a year, with the rest going to Miami Beach charities. He is accepting no contribution over $100 and won’t accept check bundling. Instead of fundraisers, he is having “friend-raisers” that he says are outgrowing their venues. He is also walking the city and knocking on doors to meet people seven days a week.
“Some people think you stop walking and knocking on doors when you get elected,” Levine said. “I see it as training for being mayor and I intend to continue doing it if I am honored to be elected. It’s the ultimate training to be mayor.”
Despite capping donations, Levine said he has no problem investing in his own campaign to make sure he can compete with the fundraising of the veteran politico Gongora. “I started from nothing in Miami Beach and the way I see it, investing in my campaign is investing in Miami Beach.”
Levine also claims another difference from Gongora.
“I don’t need this job,” he said. “I want this job. That’s a big difference between my opponent and I. He needs this job.”
Gongora took the statesmanlike approach to addressing Levine’s criticism.
“No matter what, I will keep reaching out to our community and building consensus among those who share my vision and know that leadership and service matter every day, and must make a difference every day, not just when there’s an opportunity for an election season cameo,” Gongora said. “Unlimited money and/or playing the blame game without a message is no substitute for the diligence, consistency and strength required to move a great city and a great people forward. In me, Miami Beach has always had and will continue to have that level of commitment.
“I have always prided myself on working with the community to develop meaningful solutions to our problems,” Gongora continued. “That’s the kind of commissioner I’ve been and that’s the kind of mayor I’ll be. As near as I can tell, the only identifiable community involvement of my opponent is a real estate deal in which he made a lot of money and the public got less than they were promised. Now, with no discernible community involvement, my opponent says he has answers to all of our problems? I know the residents of Miami Beach are smarter than that.”
Meanwhile, Levine said he hopes to take politics out of Miami Beach.
“If you need a clear example of why politics needs to be taken out, look at the convention center process,” Levine said. “The decision was made entirely politically. Our city manager who comes with tremendous integrity and a Harvard degree makes a strong recommendation and the incumbent commissioners make another choice that costs the public more money and takes more time.”