Creative Loafing Political Profile: Who the hell is Jeff Greene?

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All that most Floridians know about Greene so far is what they’ve learned through a massive television and direct mail campaign, a relatively generic offensive that in one case featured his 83-year-old West Palm Beach mother, and highlights him criticizing “career politicians” like his Democratic rival. With the help of the ad onslaught, he finished in a statistical tie in the Quinnipiac poll released in June.

As for Meek, he began trying to define Greene to Democratic primary voters during their first debate of the political season last week in West Palm. He charged him with being the “king of the undercover credit default swap that brought about the destruction of our economy that we have right now.”

That complicated Wall Street financial transaction ultimately led Greene to an $800 million payoff, the basis for Meek's charge that he profited directly from the subprime mortgage crisis that has devastated hundreds of thousands in Florida already. But before we get to that intriguing story, what else do we know about the mysterious Mr. Greene?

FOR ONE THING, he’s lived most of his life outside the Sunshine State. When I ask him how long he's actually lived in Florida, Greene reacts with slight exasperation, mentioning how he got his drivers' license in Florida and bused tables at the Breakers, the oceanfront luxury hotel in Palm Beach.

But he grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Definitely intelligent, he graduated from Johns Hopkins College in Maryland after just two and a half years.  Then, after saving $100,000 from a telemarketing gig while in college, he attended Harvard Business School in the fall of 1977.

It was at Harvard that he began his real estate career, and his life as a Republican.  After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles and in 1982 ran as a Reagan Republican in an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for Congress.

Of course, that was then.  When asked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Hardball if he voted for Reagan for president in either 1980 or 1984, Greene was suddenly hit with a case of amnesia, saying he simply couldn’t recall.

Since he was described in a Forbes 2008 profile as having “an active social life," perhaps the ’80s are a blur to Greene. Or maybe he did vote for the Gipper. On this question, it was probably wiser for Greene to act dumb than confess his support for a man who ranks alongside George W. Bush and Richard Nixon as Democrats’ Least Favorite Presidents Ever.

His lack of connection to the Democratic Party in Florida was exacerbated when he told a Sarasota media forum earlier this month, “Whether I was a Republican or Democrat, who cares?”

Actually, a lot of Democrats in Florida do.  The comment provoked a letter from a group of local party heads chastising him, ending with the comment “Since you are seeking the Democratic nomination in this race, we urge you not to be dismissive of our Democratic Party.”

South Florida political blogger Joy-Ann Reid, who like Greene attended Harvard Business School, buys Greene’s statements that he entered there as a Democrat and exited a Republican.

“They churn out Republicans,” she notes. “The Milton Friedman Chicago School of economics is ingrained at Harvard. They really push the laissez-faire economic theory there.”

Reid attended last week’s Palm Beach Post debate and said she observed him veering off into  “Republican party language,” specifically in his comments about illegal immigrants and the structure of the federal stimulus program.

On the Middle East, Greene (who is Jewish) is a passionate supporter of Israel, and says he’s not pleased with how the current administration in Washington has handled relations with the Netanyahu government. But it’s not his stance on the issues that has made Greene instantly competitive with Kendrick Meek, the four-term Congressman from Miami who has not been able to connect solidly with Democrats over the past year.  Meek has raised $5 million over that time – okay when he was running virtually unopposed, but meager now that Greene has dumped close to that amount in six weeks' time.

WILL THOSE MILLIONS pave the way for his victory against Kendrick Meek? Not necessarily.  A report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics released last week found that self-funded candidates are elected at a much lower rate than candidates who raised money from other sources. (Maybe that'll make Bill McCollum feel better about his race against Rick Scott, who has dropped a quick $15 million in his bid for the Republican nomination for president.)

However, USA Today also reported last week that, based on campaign finance reports and early election results, self-funded candidates could enjoy one of their most successful years ever in congressional and gubernatorial races.

And that disturbs some Democrats, like Sarasota County Democratic party chair Rita Fernandino.

Fernandino thinks there’s a big difference between government and business when it comes to being accountable. “In order to have effective governing and policy you need to have the support and buy-in of the people,” she says, and she hasn’t seen that so far in Jeff Greene.

“What we’ve seen from Jeff Greene to date is there’s been a complete lack of outreach to the people,” she says, alluding to the fact that he was in Sarasota earlier this month for a media convention and yet failed to contact any Democratic party officials.

University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith thinks that organized labor might have to show its muscle. A year ago, Meek seemed to freeze out other potential Democratic Senate aspirants when he locked up early endorsements from the state’s biggest unions, such as AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

With Greene expected to spend several million more dollars prior to the August 24 primary, Meek will need that help. Smith also thinks that the long-held perception among Democrats that Meek can’t win in November against Marco Rubio, and especially Charlie Crist, might also lead some Dems to pull the lever for Greene. “If you have that conventional wisdom that you can’t win in November, it makes it very unlikely that you’ll get supported in August,” Smith says.

The other concern for party leaders, says Smith, is that many Democratic voters are looking favorably toward Crist, now an independent and taking more left-of-center positions than at any time in his professional political career.

Ramsay McLaughlan is the chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. He gets exasperated when he hears fellow Democrats speak enthusiastically about voting for Crist. Their reasons: a)  They fear that Kendrick Meek — and now Jeff Greene — “can’t win” in November, and b) Crist would be better than their bête noir, former House Speaker and conservative cause célebre Rubio.

“Democrats can’t win state races, so let’s let the Republicans who are least offensive take over, and I think that’s the mistake,” he says, mimicking Democrats' defeatist attitude over the years. “When you start by saying this person isn’t half as bad, and say ‘I’m okay with that,’ that’s a problem.”

[image-1]IF PARTY INSIDERS fear Meek will never be able to break though to the electorate, Greene is convinced he can win by relating his story to the rest of the state. (Photo, right: Greene at Century Village West Palm Beach.)

“I was born middle class. My dad was a textile machinery dealer in Massachusetts and he lost his livelihood when I was a teenager and my parents moved to West Palm Beach,” Greene told CL in the lobby of the Carillon Hilton in St. Pete in mid-June. “So people can look at Jeff Greene. I didn’t win the lottery yesterday. I think I’ve worked very hard my whole life and I think people can look at me and think: Who’s the person in this race who signs the front of lots of paychecks, not just the backs of lots of paychecks, and he knows how to create jobs?”

Greene bristles when he hears Meek’s criticism that his bets against the housing bubble led to the financial crisis that has hurt millions of Americans. He says that he was one of the rare people who sensed trouble in the housing market when things were going wonderfully and made a risky bet that it wouldn’t last.

At last week’s debate with Meek, Greene went on the offense, accusing Meek of being more complicit in the downfall of the economy, saying that he promoted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subprime loans to the detriment of Floridian homeowners.

The topic of “cdf’s” may be too dense for voters to wrap their brains around, but the fact that he was one of the first individuals in the country to trade such derivatives could be problematic for Greene.

Though his explanations make a certain amount of sense, it also usually takes longer than a 30-second sound bite to fully understand why that’s the case. Then again, given the short attention span of the electorate, how much of Meek’s charges will stick is debatable, since it’s not easy for the media to explicate. (Last week, in breaking down whether Meek’s charge that Greene was “king of the undercover credit default swap,” took the editors of PolitiFact nearly 1,500 words to break down. They labeled the charge “barely true.")

No,  he can’t be dismissed  just yet. And with reports of more and more Democrats financially contributing to Charlie Crist, one big advantage that Greene has over Meek is money, something that will help him if national Democratic fundraisers end up sitting out this race in November. But whether he’ll make it that far is something that will be worth watching.

Jeff Greene is staring at me with a somewhat bemused grin. I’m reading to him a quote from an article published earlier that day in Politico, the online political website, that references the fact that Mike Tyson was the best man at his wedding, and former madam Heidi Fleiss was a housemate. The story goes on to say that because he’s surging and might possibly become the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in late August, some Florida Democrats are now looking even more longingly at Charlie Crist as their choice in November.

“Look, Charlie Crist is a Republican governor, he’s always been a Republican,” Greene replies in his Massachusetts accent, as he sits a few feet away from me. “His nickname, if I’m not mistaken, used to be ‘Chain-gang Charlie.’ I think that Democrats, when they get to know me, will get to know I’m the real deal.”

Greene’s candidacy is drawing national attention, and his connections with Tyson and Fleiss have become de rigueur set pieces in every political profile written about him. A much-discussed piece in Friday's Washington Post explained the connections (he met Tyson at a Malibu barbecue and  met his future wife at a party Tyson hosted; he let Fleiss stay in one of his houses as she recovered from an abusive relationship).  The story also shows that he's still, well, green, spouting all-too-quotable quotes, such as a statement that the Koran contains "all kinds of this crazy stuff," as well as  the instant classic line, "I've never even been into strippers or had a hooker, it's not my thing.” The latter was tweeted en masse by Florida political junkies throughout the day.

Greene's newness to the Florida (or any) political scene will be both a curse and a blessing for the 55-year-old billionaire over the next two months, leading up to the August 24 Democratic Senate primary election against Kendrick Meek.

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