Miami Beach's mayor has an entrepreneurial touch
The Miami Beach mayor’s job was, in some respects, an odd choice for a hands-on CEO. The position has very few executive powers; the mayor is basically a city commissioner in a city run day-to-day by a city manager. But Levine has more than compensated for the lack of institutional power through the force of his personality and resources.
Plus, he made sure to have help. Michael Gongora, a city commissioner who was one of the opponents Levine defeated in the 2013 mayor’s race, says Levine also helped engineer victories for allies who were running for other seats on the commission. “He came into office with a majority slate from day one,” Gongora says. “And he was able to exercise that power immediately.”
At Levine’s urging, Miami Beach replaced a $1-billion plan to overhaul the entire district around its convention center with a more restrained, convention center only renovation project that will cost half as much and should be completed next year. The city owns the center 100% now. It also brought in a new police chief and deputy chief, as well as an entirely new line of majors and captains.
Levine also has promoted an array of progressive policies, including health insurance for transgender city employees, civil citations for marijuana possession and a $13.10 living wage that businesses are now challenging in court. He’s even appeared alongside protesters demanding that the Miami Seaquarium release Lolita, a killer whale captured off the Washington state coast more than 40 years ago.
Levine has focused most intently on sea-level rise, a threat to a city built on a slender barrier island. The Atlantic Ocean has already risen above Miami Beach’s stormwater outflow pipes, which has led to a phenomenon Levine calls “sunnyday flooding” — during high tides, sea water gushes up through storm drains and floods streets.
Shortly after taking office, Levine organized and persuaded city commissioners to fast-track what’s become a $500-million package of improvements to combat flooding. The work includes raising roads by nearly a yard; installing massive pumps to push rainwater out to sea and one-way flex valves to stop seawater from flowing in; building higher seawalls and revising building codes to require higher minimum elevations. Levine says the city has spent or obligated about $200 million so far, and the city’s flooding problems have eased considerably.
To pay for the work, Levine got city commissioners to more than double Miami Beach’s stormwater fees. He put himself front and center during the debate, advocating for the rate hikes on television and social media — and providing political cover for others to cast potentially damaging votes.
“His willingness to be held accountable has given him wide berth when he wants to push something,” says City Commissioner Ricky Arriola, a friend of Levine who was elected, with Levine’s help, in 2015. “We know that he’ll own it if it doesn’t work out.”
Miami Beach’s work to prepare for sea-level rise has won the city — and Levine himself — international attention. “Before the Flood,” a documentary produced by the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, includes an extended interview segment with Levine. An episode of the National Geographic Channel’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series about climate change features a scene in which Levine and the comedian Jack Black chat about Miami Beach’s preparations at a bistro table beside one of the city’s newly raised roads.
In 2015, Levine endured intense criticism for getting involved with a political committee that raised money from city vendors. He has had a strained relationship with the Miami Herald, often using the newspaper as a foil in speeches. And he has an impetuous style on Twitter. When Airbnb once complained that Levine was refusing to meet with company representatives, Levine responded with a post that read “soooooo sad” followed by five crying-face emojis.
Such outbursts have sometimes earned Levine comparisons to President Donald Trump, a parallel that even some of his friends say has some merit.
“I think you sometimes see frustration in someone who is not used to the pace of government,” Arriola says. Levine “is a different guy altogether” than Trump, “but you do see that frustration when you build your whole career moving fast and being an entrepreneur and being nimble and then you try to bring that same DNA to the grind of government.”
Like Trump, Levine is ambitious. He announced in January that he won’t seek a third two-year term as mayor of Miami Beach. Instead, he’s begun a statewide “listening tour” — financed with another $2 million of his own money — to explore a possible run for governor in 2018. He’s widely expected to formally launch a campaign soon. A lifelong bachelor, Levine got engaged this spring. He and his fiancée are expecting a son in October.
Levine says it’s time for him to move on to a new challenge. “We’ve done everything,” Levine says of his tenure as Miami Beach Mayor. “And if we haven’t completed it, it’s in process or it’s planned. I can’t think of anything else.
“I’m a person who believes in change. I’m not sticking around as your day-to-day operator. I’m an entrepreneur.”
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