Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene is getting ready to reintroduce himself to Floridians with his first round of TV commercials starting next week.
And while he’s remaining coy on the content, the Palm Beach billionaire real estate investor is making it clear that public education reform is at the top of his list of issues.
Greene, who filed for the race June 1, has just ten weeks until the August 28 Democratic primary to do what no Democrat has done in more than a year of campaigning (at least according to polls showing a substantial undecided pool): distinguish himself from the pack.
He’s intent on doing so, he said, by convincing voters that it’s not just about a Democrat winning in November, but about a Democrat having the ability to turn things around in Tallahassee.
“It’s all well and good to say I have good ideas. You have to be able to get things done. The way I look at this election, for me, this is like an eighteen-wheeler moving down the highway, you know, pretty high-speed. It’s basically the Republican governors and the Republican-controlled Legislature that has sat in Tallahassee for a long, long, time,” Greene said in a lengthy interview with Florida Politics Friday afternoon.
“What that truck has done, is it has dismantled a lot of things I’m talking about. It has not been focused on upward mobility for people who are kind of behind the eight ball. It has not been focused on improving education, or taking care of people who need help from Tallahassee,” he continued. “So you need someone who can, number one, jam the brakes on that truck, turn it around and start going the other way quickly.
During the interview, Greene took mild, dismissive potshots at his Democratic rivals: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Winter Park businessman Chris King, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham.
“When I stack my resume up against these other guys, you just don’t think, Andrew Gillum? He’s a perfectly nice guy,” Greene said. “But he’s in his 30s or something,” said the 63-year-old Greene. “He’s never been in the economy. He’s been a mayor. He has good ideas? I don’t know. I don’t really believe that he, or Chris King, or any of them really have the ability, the skill set to go into something as complex as an $88 billion budget in the state of Florida and turn all of these things around in a big way.”
Greene repeatedly pointed to details of his life story, starting from a childhood of modest means, and how his opportunities for quality education helped make him a successful real estate investor and developer, and a very wealthy man, to demonstrate his work ethic, empathy with people struggling to make ends meet, the root of his goal for Florida education, and a demonstration that he can succeed.
“Do I want to stack up my resume alongside the resumes of Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King, and Philip Levine?” he said. “All day long.”
He laughed when reminded that Gov. Rick Scott offered a similar rags-to-riches life story when he, like Greene, ran an outsider campaign.
Greene offered some respect toward Scott, saying he works hard for what he believes, but also took some fairly respectful shots at the Republican, suggesting that his Republican priorities have been all wrong for Florida, and are only working for wealthy people such as Greene and Scott.
In contrast, Greene leveled blistering attacks on fellow billionaire-turned-politician President Donald Trump, Greene’s neighbor in Palm Beach, calling him a “narcissistic, egocentric, cheap guy,” and declaring he can’t wait to fight with him on issues.
Greene’s is a fledgling campaign, still bringing on consultants and not disclosing most of them yet. After a silent first week, he only began going public, with public appearances and media interviews this week. The Florida Politics interview was by phone from his Palm Beach office.
The TV commercials start next week, with promises of a “robust digital strategy” to go along with them.
Greene, who spent $24 million of his own money on his failed run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, said he’s willing to contribute his own money again because he and his wife Mei Sze Greene already have committed to donating billions of dollars to charity. As long as they’re doing so, he said he’s convinced he can make the most difference for people as governor, so what’s a few tens of millions more?
Previous reports have quoted Greene as saying he’s willing to spend up to $200 million of his own money. But Friday, he dismissed that figure as perhaps a flip answer, and certainly both far beyond necessary and probably pragmatically impossible anyway, considering how short the campaign will be.
Yet Greene plans to almost entirely self-fund his campaign, as he did in 2010. He said he does not want to be accepting donations from anyone who might come back thinking they were holding IOUs, a scenario he accused Scott of following and Levine of risking. Greene said he might open up to small donations, perhaps with a $100 maximum, so that people can participate.
“I’ll spend as little as I have to, but we will spend whatever it takes,” he said Friday.
Greene begins his life story by describing his education, and it seems that is where his campaign will start.
In 1970 his father’s business, selling machine equipment to textile mills throughout New England, went bust when the entire New England textile industry went bust. The family’s middle-class lifestyle vanished. His parents moved from Worcester, Mass., to West Palm Beach to start over, and never really recovered back to middle class. But even then, Greene said, Florida’s schools were considered “not that great,” while Massachusetts schools were found among the best.
So, a 15-year-old Greene was left to live with an elderly great-aunt, to finish high school. That got him into Johns Hopkins University, which led to Harvard Business School.
Almost fifty years later, he said, he can’t believe that Florida’s schools still rank among the nation’s lowest quartile in spending and quality. And on the flip side, Massachusetts is one of the nation’s hotbeds for 21st-century high-tech companies and venture capital investment, he said, while Florida is not.
[Levine, who also spent much of his childhood in Massachusetts and then became a successful and wealthy businessman has made the same argument.]
“To me, this is ridiculous,” Greene said. “How can a state, how can a people be that complacent where they would accept this level of failure in the most important thing of all, which is educating our children, providing them with the tools they need to succeed?”
Education is not a new top-priority for the Democrats. Graham, a former public schools counsel and PTA mom, has declared it her top priority throughout her campaign. Gillum has proposed a minimum $50,000 salary to attract quality teachers. Levine has proposed a $10,000-a-year pay hike for teachers.
King has laid out several education proposals, paid for in part by money saved from his plan to reduce prison incarceration.
Like King, Greene is proposing free community college. Like several candidates, including Republican Adam Putnam, he’s offering more vocational and technical education.
But Greene distinguishes between what he has in mind — technical education for 21st-century jobs — and what he said Putnam is considering, which he argues is technical education for existing jobs, something Greene predicts will be going away soon, in the next wave of technology.
Greene also seeks mandatory preschool early education for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
He pressed for an emphasis on making sure students can read by third grade. He said he would find ways to reintroduce arts, music, and other humanities education back into all the schools, arguing that such teaching is critical to making students want to learn and become well-rounded adults. He argued for early education in computer coding.
Greene is not opposed to standardized testing, saying its necessary to benchmark where students are, but he said he wants it rolled back. Teachers have to have the time and flexibility to teach, he said.
The state’s universities need to be improved to compete with the nation’s best, to be world-class, not just pretty good, Greene said.
But the priority must be on pre-K education, he insisted.
Greene cited a study on returns on investment in education: “Early childhood education, it’s like a 100 times return on investment, over universities,” he said.
Greene dismissed the notion that he has to figure out now how to pay for it all right now, contending there will be time for deep dives into the budgets to find the money. He said he’d seen studies suggesting that his preschool idea could cost $1 billion-$1.2 billion, which, without being specific yet, he said ought to be easily found in the state’s $88 billion annual budget. The rest of it is a matter of turning the truck around on Republican priorities, he suggested.
If the money can’t be found, Greene said, he would be open (as a last resort) to raising taxes on “the super rich” — like himself — to pay for education.
“We’re undertaxed,” he added.
“If the cost of being undertaxed is we are destroying the lives and not giving opportunities to our children, then perhaps we should look at that. I just don’t think that is the problem yet. We have to look at the low-hanging fruit first,” Greene continued.
“We’re not a poor state. We have a huge talent pool. People moving here all the time. All the retirees. It’s not like we’re a coal mining state where all the coal mines have closed. We’re a state that’s generally growing. We have more and more retirees, and more and more tourists and more and more people coming here. We have a vibrant economy, it [education] is just something we’ve not cared about.”