Philip Levine Might Ride a Democratic Wave Into the Governor's Mansion

Photo by Stian Roenning

In September 2014, Norma Healey, a widow from Texas, took a weeklong Royal Caribbean cruise with a pack of younger friends. They'd leave Galveston, Texas, and stop in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. Healey, a rouge-haired, blue-eyed 75-year-old of medium build and a skin tone that "doesn't do well in the sun," she says, enjoyed the sea air for two days while the ship neared Mexico.

Her friends planned to scuba dive, but she wanted to hit the shops. Just before arrival, passengers were invited to a meeting where a spokesman told them where to find deals. "We heard from quite a few businesses, but they were really promoting this one called Diamonds International very heavy," she recalls. The lure was a $500 raffle at the shop.

Healey took a taxi there with a couple she met onboard.

Inside, she saw the person who had promoted the shops onboard the ship, a representative of a Miami Beach company called Royal Media Partners. As she perused the jewelry on display, the sales team "started coming heavy," she says. They promised a guarantee. When Healy expressed doubt about making a purchase, the Royal Media rep stepped in. "The man said, 'Don't worry — I've already hailed a taxi for us,'" Healey remembers, "'so go ahead and finish it.'"

She bought a Vacheron Constantin watch for more than $33,000 before riding back to the ship in the taxi the Royal Media Partners rep had waiting. "I felt very pressured," she says. A month later, after she wore the watch only a few times, the wrist clasp broke and the watch slid down her arm. It was unwearable. When she took it to a Vacheron Constantin-authorized shop for repair, she was told — to her surprise — it was a used watch suffering from "wear and tear," not a new piece as she had been told. It was discolored with scratches, and there was lint inside. She made calls and wrote letters but quickly learned the "guarantee" the shop and Royal Media Partners had promised was worthless. She felt ripped off. Healy stopped making payments and was reported to a debt collector. "It's hurt my life. It's hurt my credit," she says. "I'm 75 years old, and I don't think I should be going through this at this stage in my life."

Thomas Thompson, a Texas-based due diligence investigator who holds power of attorney for Healy and speaks on her behalf, filed a fraud complaint with the Florida Attorney General's Office in 2014. The target: Royal Media Partners, whose founder and CEO is Philip Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach and the top contender for the Democratic nomination for governor of the nation's third-largest state, Florida.

"Philip Levine shouldn't run for any office with what he has behind him," Thompson says. "His company's job is to get people into stores that they know are not legitimate. The law will eventually catch up."

The episode offers a dark glimpse into the world from which Levine emerged. An entrepreneur whose estimated net worth is around $100 million, Levine has made a living in the cruise ship industry since the mid-'80s. He did it by coming up with innovative ways to market products and onshore shops to passengers. Though that ingenuity earned both Levine and the cruise lines a lot of money in 2014, it has also made him enemies, including customers such as Norma Healy, business owners, and even, at one point, the attorney general of Alaska.

"I was the first to go on the cruise ships and bust up what was going on," Levine once boasted. "Not everybody loved me."

Thanks to a trove of personal wealth, well-lubricated connections in the business world, an early all-out media blitz, and years of appearing in scores of documentaries and think pieces about climate change, Levine is hovering at the top of the Democratic pack. In March, he took the lead among Democrats for the first time, according to a Gravis Marketing Florida poll. He's also leading the Democratic fundraising race thanks to millions of dollars he's personally contributed to his campaign war chest.

If the predicted blue wave covers the nation this November, Levine might just be swept into Tallahassee.

click to enlarge
In the ’60s and ’70s, Levine grew up in Hollywood, which he says was a lot like Happy Days.
Courtesy of Philip Levine

Before the politics, wealth, and appearances alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Black, Philip Levine was born in Brookline, just outside Boston, in 1962. President John F. Kennedy had come into this world nearby five decades earlier and would be assassinated soon after Levine's first birthday.

"He went to my elementary school," Levine says. "I grew up every day waiting in line to go inside the school, and I would see President Kennedy's report card on the wall."

He recalls working hard from a young age — getting paid for shoveling snow and then helping a mechanic in a garage. At the age of 10, he flew to Fort Lauderdale with his mother Diane and his older sister Debbie. "I had never felt heat like that hit my face," he remembers.

At first they moved to Coral Springs, which he remembers as "dirt bikes and alligators." Then it was on to the well-to-do Emerald Hills neighborhood in Hollywood. Diane worked as a realtor and did other odd jobs. His father Joel, a salesman and financial planner with American Express, stayed behind in Boston. The family had separated before the move. Levine would spend some summers visiting his dad.

From sixth to eighth grade, Levine attended Attucks Middle School, a majority-black school named for Crispus Attucks, the African-American martyr who was killed by the British during the Boston Massacre in 1770. Levine's childhood best friend, Josh Gillon, remembers that kids threw rocks at them on the way to and from school, but the experience was overall positive. "We were minorities," Gillon says. "People are shocked that that's the school we went to, but we got a great education."

Levine says Attucks helped shape his identity. "I think I'm more comfortable understanding people of different backgrounds," he says.

Weekends were spent playing paddleball on Hollywood Beach, eating pizza with friends, and snorkeling. He moved to Hollywood Hills High School his freshman year and joined the wrestling team. "I must have won some matches," he laughs, but doesn't remember much.

At the age of 14, he saved up and bought a moped. He would cruise with friends to the old Florida Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and the Cine 1 & 2 on Sheridan Street. In his downtime, he tried playing instruments — saxophone, drums, and some others he can't recall — but they didn't hold his interest.

In school, Levine was an average student. He only wanted to chase girls and work. "High school in Hollywood was fun," he remembers. "It was all-American... a little Happy Days-ish."

He washed cars, scooped ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins on Sheridan Street "for $1.65 an hour," washed dishes, parked cars, and hustled legal documents to and from court for various law firms. "We were always thinking about stuff and challenging each other," says Gillon, who worked alongside Levine throughout high school.

"He knew how to organize. He knew how to motivate."

tweet this

In the summer of 1978, when they were 16 years old, Levine and Gillon drove to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. They made the 1,400-mile voyage in Levine's early-'70s brown Volkswagen, his first car. They took jobs as bellhops for the summer at Kutsher's Hotel & Country Club, a century-old resort and vacation destination frequented by Jewish families escaping the city. (Future Lakers star Wilt Chamberlain had done the same job decades earlier.)

Gillon, now an internet marketing entrepreneur, recalls the work. "We had to carry people's luggage in bow ties in 85 degree heat," he says. "We'd make a dollar."

Adds Levine: "There were no elevators. A lot of times, you'd have to schlep luggage for a long period of time, and get to the room and next thing they say, 'We don't like the room. Let's go back to the front desk.'"

At school, the one class that always captured Levine's attention was American history. His teacher was John Wilson, a charismatic retiree who still remembers the gregarious, inquisitive kid who seemed to get along with everyone. "I was never surprised that he got into politics and became very successful at that," Wilson says. "He knew how to organize; he knew how to motivate."

But Levine never ran for office in high school, the teacher recalls. Instead, he was "the man behind the scenes" who would help his friends get elected. In fact, Levine helped Gillon win the class presidency during their senior year. "Philip and I worked together on my campaign, my speech, the whole thing," Gillon says. "I remember he was on the stage with me. I'm a drummer, and from what I remember, he had a drum. We just got to speaking to the whole school, and we had everyone on their feet."

After graduation, Levine spent two semesters at the University of Florida before transferring to the University of Michigan, where he majored in political science.

He worked hard and finished in early 1984 before heading back to South Florida. "It was hard to find something I wanted to do," he recalls. "It was one of the worst feelings in my life."

And then, about a year after returning home, a newspaper advertisement changed everything.

"A little company by the name of Royal Caribbean was looking to hire someone to come onboard the ship and talk to the passengers about the ports of call," he remembers. Levine had no public speaking experience, but before long, he was on a cruise ship bound for San Juan. He was terrified because he'd only done a little research on the city. But as he began to speak, the crowd listened and responded.

"That was the beginning of the rest of my life," Levine says. "I fell into this great industry. I ended up working onboard various Royal Caribbean and Carnival ships. And then I went out and started this little company with 500 bucks in a studio apartment above the News Cafe on Ocean Drive."

click to enlarge
Levine attended the University of Michigan.
Courtesy of Philip Levine

During the mid- to late '80s, Levine worked with Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines. Mostly, he spoke with passengers about things to do onshore. It was in 1989 when the genius idea hit him: Start magazines for the cruise lines and sell ads to the shops at ports of call. He incorporated a company, Onboard Media, that would also promote those shops in onboard lectures in exchange for a percentage of sales or other fees. The firm was successful beyond Levine's wildest dreams. It raked in millions of dollars.

Soon he developed a reputation for dating beautiful women. The affluence fed into other passions. "I got involved in Democratic Party politics," he says. He cultivated a relationship with former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and organized fundraisers for President Bill Clinton, whom he still considers a good friend.

In 2000, Levine sold Onboard Media to the international conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy for an undisclosed sum. By then, revenues were reportedly as high as $400 million per year. Levine remained with the company until 2003. He then began investing in real estate in Miami Beach with developer Scott Robins, focusing on the Sunset Harbour neighborhood. In an interview in Miami magazine, Robins said Levine is "my partner on everything — he's instrumental in terms of vision and money."

Then came politics. As early as 2009, Levine told Worth magazine that he was thinking about running for mayor of Miami Beach. In 2010, the Obama administration tapped him to be a part of the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, where he focused on making the U.S. more welcoming for "qualified guests."

"I hear from so many of my international friends how challenging it is to come into the United States," he said in his first meeting. "It's not just from the visa, but the issue is also with... immigration and customs, where maybe the demeanor and attitude needs to change a little bit."

In 2011, Levine started a new firm, Royal Media Partners, which operated in the same space as his old company, marketing for port shops and activities aboard cruise ships.

It was about this time that complaints began to crop up in a most unlikely place — Ketchikan, Alaska, a tiny town of about 10,000 frozen residents tucked in the state's southeastern corner. Known mostly for its small stores and what is allegedly the world's largest collection of totem poles, it had become a stop for Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Princess ships that left Seattle and cruised north to see the glaciers, still icy in summer.

Both passengers and businesses approached the town's leaders with fears that media companies such as the ones Levine had founded were operating like a cartel, charging store owners thousands of dollars to be featured in lectures and magazines. The outfits also allegedly warned passengers to steer clear of places that didn't fork out money for ads or cruise line endorsements.

In Juneau, about 300 miles north, a shop owner who used the alias Jay Mehan placed a sign in front of his store near the port to protest strong-arm tactics used by cruise ship media companies. His sign read, "Don't see us on your shopping map? We'd rather not give your cruise ship a kickback!" He said he had paid $25,000 plus 10 percent of sales to participate in the shopping programs but then decided to stop.

"[Passengers] would say, 'We were told to only go to certain stores,'" Mehan told Alaska Public Media. "So that's like a scare factor."

Bob Weinstein, a former mayor of Ketchikan, says his city was besieged by complaints. "It was a significant enough problem that both business owners and passengers brought it to the city," he recalls.

"Local shops were dominated," adds Bruce Botelho, a former attorney general of Alaska who at the time was mayor of Juneau. "Pretty early on, these projects expanded to include not only gift shops, but shore excursions."

Photo by Stian Roenning

In 2013, Alaska threatened to sue Royal Media Partners; the company Levine had founded and then sold, Onboard Media; and one other. Levine's new firm paid a $45,000 settlement. The others laid out $165,000. All three entered into consent decrees with the state that required them to disclose that shops pay to be recommended in lectures and promotions. The decree also specified that companies were not allowed to disparage shops that didn't participate.

Levine acknowledges he maintains close connections to the cruise ship industry.

tweet this

Levine says he was caught up in a political battle in Alaska. Some residents wanted fewer cruises to visit, while others hoped for more. "When the attorney general brought it to our attention... we all complied immediately," Levine says. "We said, 'We're very happy to comply with anything. Whatever types of disclaimers that you guys would want, we're more than happy to do. For us it was a minor issue; it wasn't a big deal.'"

But the issues raised in the Alaska consent decree might be more widespread. A research paper published last year by the University of California Santa Barbara showed that across the Caribbean, cruise ship companies have in recent decades created a system that keeps tourists — and their dollars — in a tightly controlled bubble that feeds back to the multinational companies connected to the cruise industry. That practice hurts local business owners and arguably local economies. As far back as 1995, a Nassau shop owner had complained to the Wall Street Journal that he had to pay media companies $100,000 a year, or "the cruise line [would] recommend someone else." The article quoted former deputy director general of the Bahamas, James Hepple, as saying, "It's almost embarrassing how little we're getting... We're providing the beautiful setting. But it's the ships that are keeping the money."

Adds Botelho, the former Alaska attorney general: "There's varying degrees of economic terrorism that take place. In Alaska, it's been very effective, and I suspect that is a practice that was probably perfected in the Caribbean."

Responds Levine: "I think what happens is when you're dealing with hundreds of thousands of cruise customers... you're always going to have complaints. We get complaints all the time via people who buy a watch who don't like the watch... all we are is a media advertising company."

Levine acknowledges he maintains close connections to the multibillion-dollar cruise ship industry and vows he would do "anything in [his] power" to encourage its growth.

Indeed, Royal Media Partners has an exclusive onboard media and promotions agreement with Royal Caribbean in Alaska and the Caribbean.

If Levine were elected governor of Florida, where the largest cruise companies are headquartered, his new position could pose some conflicts of interest.

click to enlarge
Soon after graduating from the University of Michigan, Levine began working with cruise lines.
Courtesy of Philip Levine

Levine's political past might be the best predictor of his future as governor. To launch his Miami Beach mayoral campaign in 2013, 1,500 people signed to back his candidacy over just a few months. He knocked on thousands of doors from Government Cut to Surfside. "I broke into every condo building in Miami Beach," Levine recalls. "Top down. I took the stairwells to avoid the elevators so I wouldn't get thrown out by security cams."

Though Levine was a millionaire and could easily have paid the city's $750 qualifying fee without going door-to-door, he chose to do it the hard way. J.C. Plenas, Levine's former election attorney and political adviser, says he'd never seen anything like it. "I was very impressed with how quickly he took to it," Plenas recalls. "I mean, you have to understand: No mayoral candidate in Miami Beach had qualified by petition before."

Early on, a friend introduced Levine to Nancy Liebman, a member of the citizen activist group Miami Beach United. Liebman has been a vocal progressive activist on the Beach for 30 years. "I sat with him for an hour and a half, and I felt like I had known him forever. I was very impressed," she says. "He's very personable. He's very great, very driven."

The candidate's message was simple: The sea level was rising, and Miami Beach had to take immediate action. The streets were flooding, even on sunny days. Property and investments were at risk.

"Fix the streets and stop the flooding!" he said in a campaign ad that showed him kayaking in the middle of a busy street. "Cars are meant for pavement, not for water." The previous administration of Democrat Matti Bower had begun planning to tackle the issue by raising roads, installing pumps, and building seawalls. But for Levine, the whole thing was moving too slowly. "The city was mired with analysis paralysis," he says now. "Consultants hiring consultants hiring consultants."

On November 5, 2013, Levine won just over 50 percent of the vote, which was split between four candidates. He had spent nearly $2 million to secure a total of 5,643 votes in the small island city, dwarfing the amount paid by his competitors.

He immediately set out to get things done, consultants be damned. Levine and the city commission developed a $400 million plan to revamp Miami Beach's infrastructure, largely paid for at first by increasing storm-water taxes on residents by 84 percent. The mayor and commissioners voted to declare a state of emergency, waiving the bidding process for a series of contracts to put in pumps and raise roads.

Construction workers began installing pumps in the low-lying bayside area on West Avenue in Sunset Harbour, the very place where Levine's campaign ad showed him kayaking down the street. The state, meanwhile, ramped up efforts that were already underway to do the same on Alton Road. But the patchwork of projects caused traffic tie-ups. Local businesses complained the construction was killing them. "They say, 'It's great for the city,'" Rachel Stevens, owner of Rachel's Psychic Center on Alton Road, said at the time. "And I say, 'I can't pay my freaking rent.'"

On October 9, 2014, Levine hosted then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in Sunset Harbour at a news conference to talk about climate change. He touted the infrastructure project, noting the cost could reach nearly a half-billion dollars. He said it was better to face the emergency sooner rather than later.

"We hope that Miami Beach serves as a model for other communities around the world to realize you cannot ignore this," he told the crowd while backed by U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as others.

Within blocks of where he stood, unknown to many, were at least eight Levine-owned properties. At one of them, on the corner of Alton and Tenth Street, he had personally overseen about a dozen construction workers stepping over puddles and slogging through mud to keep the place dry during a king tide.

Levine owns two properties on that corner, including the headquarters of his media company, which now doubles as the registered headquarters for his gubernatorial campaign. In Miami Beach alone, he owns or has a stake in more than $50 million worth of real estate, according to financial disclosures and property records. The highest concentration is in the low-lying western parts of South Beach. The pumps would benefit many people in the area, no doubt. But as New Times has reported, a primary beneficiary of the earliest stages of the infrastructure project is Levine himself.

"I have a very hard time believing it's just a coincidence that all this public money went into the areas where his buildings are," said attorney David Wieder, who ran against Levine for the mayor's seat in 2015.

During that 2015 reelection bid, Levine found himself engulfed in a scandal involving city contractors. The political action committee Relentless for Progress, chaired by then-Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, accepted nearly $40,000 in donations from two construction companies that had won no-bid contracts. The PAC was meant to raise funds for Levine and a slate of candidates for three open city commission seats.

An independent group might second-guess the work done under Levine's watch.

tweet this

WPLG senior political reporter Michael Putney led the charge, devoting time to it on his show This Week in South Florida. He also authored a Miami Herald column that declared the PAC was "strong-arming" vendors and contractors into making donations. "Some on the receiving end have told me they agreed to give only because they feared payback from the mayor, commission, and city administration if they didn't," he wrote. "What Levine and Wolfson are doing with their PAC may be marginally legal, but it's unethical and wrong."

Levine appeared on Putney's show August 2, 2015, and acknowledged personally helping solicit money from city vendors and contractors for the PAC. But he noted he had largely self-funded his campaign. "I absolutely made calls and asked them to contribute to this," Levine said of city vendors and contractors. "Matter of fact... I wrote a check myself to Relentless for Progress."

The arrangement wasn't illegal, but public scrutiny forced the PAC to close and return some of the money it had received from contractors.

Recently, more questions have been raised about Levine's rushed signature infrastructure project. The Miami Herald reported in January that a seawall on Indian Creek Drive did not receive the proper federal permits, and it was recently revealed that taxpayers might be on the hook for millions of dollars to redo the job. This past March, the city commission unanimously agreed to allow an independent group to audit the entire project. It might second-guess the work done under Levine's watch.

"We have a basic premise here. The water is at this level. The roads are at this level," says Levine, holding out his hands at unequal heights. "One thing I do know is that folks can go as slow as they like. I can tell you that the ocean is not listening."

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, a longtime friend of Levine's, says there's scrutiny only because Levine made a tough call. "When you go out on a limb and actually make decisions instead of just analyzing and kicking the can down the road," Arriola says, "you set yourself up for criticism."

In 2016, a joint study by local universities and national scientists uncovered that loads of raw sewage was flowing into Biscayne Bay thanks to the new pumps. The problem was that septic tanks were leaking, and when the tide rose, it brought that untreated water to the surface, where the pumps shot it into the bay. When the Herald wrote about the study, Levine declared in a city commission meeting that the newspaper had fabricated "sloppy science" in order to "sell ads." On May 24, 2016, Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila sent a six-page letter demanding the paper retract the story. (It didn't.)

City Manager Jimmy Morales filed a complaint against Florida International University scientist Henry Briceño, who helped conduct the study. "Instead of trying to solve the issue, they attacked us," Briceño says. "They tried to silence us... To have someone like that be the governor... he's the worst kind of person to be in charge of our state."

Activist and radio host Grant Stern agrees. "When I saw that, I said, 'Really? This is the person who is supposed to be leading the charge on climate change? He can't even deal with hard science in his own city.'"

After Stern took to Levine's Facebook and Twitter feeds to prod him with questions about the study, the mayor blocked him from those accounts. Stern sued for a list of others Levine had blocked. The case is ongoing.

Levine left the mayor's office this past January. Under his leadership, the city not only began to tackle sea-level rise but also instituted reforms to improve a perennially troubled police department, passed a higher minimum-wage law that butted heads with the state (it's still being fought in the courts), created a shuttle system to declutter the roads, and saw massive luxury development (while at the same time slashing its goals for affordable housing).

Still, not everyone is happy. "It's the style, or the lapses of style, that turn people off to him," says a ranking member of the Florida Democratic Party, who would speak only anonymously. "But he's solid on the issues."

Levine at a 2018 unity march for Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo by Stian Roenning

At an idyllic light-green bungalow on First Avenue North, a busy St. Petersburg street just west of downtown, a group of about 40 politically active Central Floridians joined Philip Levine in opening his campaign's first field office outside of Miami this past March 23.

"I've been watching his ads," said Bill Walker, a square-jawed military veteran and former treasurer of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. "That's what's convinced me that he's the right one so far." Asked what he thinks about the other Democrats in the race, he said he's not sure who they are. He's never heard of them.

Since announcing his run for governor in November 2017, Levine has been more aggressive than his announced rivals, including Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, as well as Republican state agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam.

Levine has opened campaign offices across the state and traveled from "Pahokee to Palatka to Pensacola," he says.

He has raised more than $10 million so far, nearly half of which comes from his own wallet. And he has spent nearly $6 million on TV ads.

In St. Pete, standing among makeshift office cubicles, he likened the Florida gubernatorial election to the landing of U.S. troops at Normandy on D-Day. Only this time, he said, it's about Democrats taking back the presidency in 2020. "We have to land in Florida," he said.

"We don't land in Florida, we don't get to Washington."

Levine is more moderate and business-friendly than Graham and Gillum. He wasn't a fan of Bernie Sanders. "I don't believe in revolutions because I grew up in Miami and I have seen what revolutions can do," he says. "No one admires governments. People admire great companies."

He argues that the state needs to listen closely to big corporations such as the "Lockheeds and eBays and Apples and Amazons" if Floridians don't want an economy driven by "Walmarts and McDonald's and Applebee's." He adds, "Their HR manuals are pro-education, pro-health care, pro-environment, anti-discrimination. They want public transportation if they're gonna come somewhere. This is what great organizations are telling us."

Tess Chibirka, a volunteer with the Sierra Club, nods her head in agreement. "All the Democrats are saying what people want to hear," she says. "I just feel like he's going to get something done."

It's particularly important for Levine to win over Central Florida because it's the main swing region. North Florida reliably votes Republican, South Florida votes Democrat, and the I-4 corridor population often decides the election.

Only a handful of governors have emerged from South Florida's population centers. The wildcard that could push Levine over that edge is that he has amassed an estimated $100 million fortune in the cruise business, and he's said he's willing to drop $25 million into the race.

Levine is, at his core, a marketing man who knows how to hook an audience. And just like on the cruise ships, money in politics helps get the word out about what he's selling. The early ad spending has garnered him name recognition. It's a strategy he plans to ride as far as he possibly can.

"Let's just say, you ain't seen nothing yet," Levine says about his TV ads. "We're just warming up."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Daniel Rivero