- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
President Donald Trump, who will appear with Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis at a Tuesday rally in Tampa, is having a major impact on Florida’s GOP primary for governor.
Trump’s Palm Beach neighbor and fellow billionaire, Jeff Greene, is spending millions to try to make Trump a factor in the Democratic primary for governor as well.
All five Democratic candidates have taken shots at Trump. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum called for Trump’s impeachment in December. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham branded the president an “embarrassment” and “bully” in her debut digital ad. Winter Park businessman Chris King said it was “cruel” and “un-American” for Trump to disparage immigrants from Haiti and Africa in January.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has criticized Trump in at least three TV ads, even buying $20,000 worth of cable slots in Washington, D.C., in February in hopes Trump (and the national media) would notice a 30-second spot on immigration that refers to “our president, who bullies for a living.”
But Greene, the real estate investor and member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club who launched his self-financed Democratic campaign in June, has poured the most money into anti-Trump TV ads and mailers. Greene has mentioned Trump in four of his six TV ads and several of his campaign mailers, casting himself as the candidate who will “stand up to Trump.”
Greene’s first 30-second ad includes a clip of Greene and Trump in an animated conversation at Trump International Golf Club in December 2016. Greene said they were arguing about Greene’s support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. The ad’s narrator calls Greene “the only candidate in America who was willing to stand up to Trump in his own dining room.”
Another Greene ad features clips of Trump playing golf and pledges that Greene will “put a stop” to spending Florida tax dollars to pay for security when Trump visits Mar-a-Lago. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies have spent about $5.7 million to protect Trump during his visits over the past year — money the federal government is expected to pay from a pot of money Congress set aside to reimburse local governments for presidential trips.
A Greene ad declaring his support for abortion rights begins by stating “Trump has declared war against women in the state of Florida.” A Greene ad supporting gun control says he will “stand up for Florida’s children by standing up to Trump and the NRA.”
Not everyone is buying Greene’s tough-on-Trump talk.
When Greene appeared at a Century Village Democratic Club meeting in West Palm Beach on Thursday and took questions from the audience, a man told Greene that because he’s paying dues to Mar-a-Lago, he’s enabling a “wannabe dictator who’s trying to destroy the country … Aren’t there better things you can do with that money?”
Greene replied that he expects to get kicked out of Mar-a-Lago for his criticisms of Trump. He added: “I’m happy to be able to walk in there — and I don’t think he’s going to let me — but I’ve stood up to him there a number of times when I’ve seen him. And I would love the chance to be a member still and bring the whole Democratic delegation with me to walk right up there, inside his walls. I don’t think it’s going to happen anymore, but that’s why I maintain that. So it really gives me access that you otherwise couldn’t have.”
Greene told CNBC the day before the 2016 election he’d be “scared to death” of Trump as president. Then he raised some Democratic eyebrows immediately after Trump’s victory when he told Forbes: “As a Democrat, I was fighting to see Hillary Clinton elected and to keep some of the policies going forward. At this point, my neighbor has won and I am behind him 100 percent as we all should be.”
In the Forbes piece, Greene added that with the presidency and control of Congress, “Republicans have a chance to do something great for this country. I hope all Democrats do the opposite of what (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell did, when President Obama was elected, and get behind Donald Trump and not think about voting him out of office.”
Greene told The Palm Beach Post last week that he made those comments “hoping that what we saw during the campaign was just a way to get elected. So of course you give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But unfortunately, we all know what we have and it’s much worse than during the campaign.”
While any of the Democratic candidates can deliver an anti-Trump soundbite at a moment’s notice, they haven’t gone as heavy on the Trump bashing as Greene.
“Simply opposing Trump isn’t going to be enough to win this election,” said Avery Jaffe, a spokesman for King’s campaign. “Chris believes that Democrats have to put forward an actual message and vision for the state of Florida that lifts people up and gives them opportunity.”
Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan was quick to note his candidate’s call for Trump’s impeachment. But, Burgan added: “There were serious problems for working people before Donald Trump was president and Andrew Gillum has been down in the trenches fighting…He didn’t just up and decide he should run for governor because Donald Trump tweets some nasty things.”
Graham’s first digital ad, targeted to social media and other internet audiences in April, was Trump-centered.
“Donald trump is an embarrassment. Donald Trump is an example of a bully. I see it as my job to stand up to Donald Trump … Donald Trump is not going to be able to stand in my of doing what’s right for the people of Florida,” Graham says in the ad.
After launching the TV phase of her campaign in June, Graham’s first three ads didn’t mention Trump, focusing instead on education, health care and ending 20 years of Republican control of Tallahassee and noting that her father is former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
While Levine has criticized Trump in some ads and at least one mailer, he told Orlando station WFLA in February that “I don’t run around the state of Florida talking about President Trump…To run around the state and just say negative things about the president is not a vision, it’s not a mission. And I don’t do that.”