- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Billionaire Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene says he’s willing to spend $100 million or more of his personal fortune on his late-starting Democratic campaign for Florida governor.
“I’m prepared to spend whatever it takes. I’m not going to take my foot off the accelerator this time. I’m going to get my message out there,” Greene told The Palm Beach Post in an interview late Tuesday.
Greene, whose net worth was estimated at $3.8 billion by Forbes last year, spent about $24 million of his own money on a losing Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2010. He was asked if he’s ready to spend that much again this year.
“It’s going to be a significant multiple of that through the general election. To go all the way through the general election in a statewide race against a very well-funded Republican machine, it could be $100 million,” said Greene.
Greene, who has been doing a series of one-on-one interviews this week, floated a $200 million figure to The Associated Press.
“Whether we spend $100 million, $50 million, $200 million — whatever it is, we will spend whatever it takes to make sure that our message is heard at least equally to what the Republican message has been,” Greene told the AP.
Greene wouldn’t estimate how much he’ll spend on the Aug. 28 Democratic primary against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Winter Park businessman Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. The winner of that race faces the winner of the Republican primary between U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
“We’ll be on the air and we’ll be doing everything you do in a campaign to win it,” said Greene, who said his TV ads should start appearing soon.
Greene, 63, and wife Mei Sze have signed onto “The Giving Pledge,” in which wealthy people promise to give a majority of their fortunes to philanthropic causes.
“We’re going to give away more than half of our net worth to philanthropy anyway and the only purpose of doing that is to make a difference. So I don’t care what I spend on this,” Greene said.
In his 2010 Senate campaign, Democratic rival Kendrick Meek accused Greene of making his money off the misery of others and critics made much of Greene’s friendships with celebrities like Mike Tyson and Lindsey Lohan.
Greene made hundreds of millions of dollars by predicting the subprime mortgage bubble would burst and investing in sophisticated contracts called credit default swaps that increased in value as home loans went bad.
“I didn’t bet against any homeowners. I went up against the biggest banks on Wall Street and I beat them, basically,” Greene said of his investments.
Greene said he learned from his 2010 campaign experience to be more proactive in telling his story of rising from modest means to staggering wealth.
He said he grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts, but his family fortunes plummeted when the textile industry moved out of the state and his father lost his business selling textile machinery. His parents moved to West Palm Beach, where his father tried his hand at a variety of jobs before dying of a heart attack in 1979, when Greene was 24.
“People are going to say ‘Oh, you’re just this billionaire,’ whatever. First of all, I know what it’s like to struggle. I struggled. I was a busboy and a waiter at The Breakers. I did everything. I painted apartments, sanded floors. I was on the road for three years in sales living out of my Pontiac Grand Am. I’ve struggled plenty,” Greene said.
“More than that, I know how important it is to have somebody there in the government to help you when you have these challenges,” Greene said.
“When people know my story, which they really didn’t last time, and they really understand I’m not some guy who just won the lottery last week, some loser who became a billionaire, but they understand that I’m a different kind of billionaire,” Greene said.
“I’m a Kennedy-Rockefeller billionaire that really is intent on making a difference — not a Donald Trump billionaire who basically comes up with phony universities to rip people off and doesn’t pay his workers and just is kind of the wrong kind of guy,” said Greene, who lives two properties south of the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club and is a member there.
Greene, who started The Greene School in West Palm Beach because he wasn’t satisfied with public or private education options for his three children, said education and improving reading for kids before third grade will be priorities of his campaign.
Greene said there’s “nothing wrong” with his four Democratic rivals, but “the leader in this race is ‘undecided’ because none of these candidates have really inspired the voters … I don’t think any of their ideas are really that great.”