Levine decries Puerto Rico hurricane response during first Orlando visit as governor candidate

2018-01-09 | The Orlando Sentinel

Jan. 09--Former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine on Tuesday called the federal response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria "one of the most embarrassing moments in American history" during his first visit to Orlando as a candidate for governor.

He spoke to a small group at the east Orange County home of Puerto Rican activist Pura Delgado, as part of a 10-city bus tour his campaign dubbed "Live! from Florida's Living Rooms."

Levine, a Democrat, touted his business credentials while calling for an increased minimum wage and funding for affordable housing. He took aim at Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican he called "the president's BFF," or best friend forever.

Levine, who chartered a flight to deliver supplies to Puerto Rico days after Maria, pledged to help those displaced from the island.

"We need to make sure that they have the proper housing, that they have the proper education, that we make sure that we welcome them to Florida and they can continue their lives going forward," he said.

Levine noted that he visited the island frequently as a cruise ship worker early in his career, before launching Onboard Media, the cruise-industry shopping and media company that propelled him to wealth. He began his remarks in Spanish before transitioning to English.

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel

Philip Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, arrives for his first visit to the Orlando area as a candidate for Florida governor, on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, as part of a 10-city bus tour dubbed "Live! from Florida's Living Rooms."

Philip Levine, the former mayor of Miami Beach, arrives for his first visit to the Orlando area as a candidate for Florida governor, on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, as part of a 10-city bus tour dubbed "Live! from Florida's Living Rooms." (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)

He described himself as an entrepreneur -- "politician," he said, is a "dirty word" -- and stressed the need to lure high-paying employers to the state. Levine listed improving the state's school system and housing as ways to entice such companies.

"If you looked at the HR manual of the most admired companies in America ... you're going to find they have something in common: They're pro-education. They're pro-health care. They're pro-environment They're pro-people," he said. "We need to be the same way in the state of Florida."

Levine cited metro Orlando in particular as a place in need of higher wages and more affordable housing, citing "The Florida Project," a critically acclaimed film depicting a girl living in poverty in a Kissimmee motel.

"I mean, my God, if Hollywood's actually made a movie about the fact that Orlando has this issue, clearly we have this issue here," he said.

Levine called for a minimum wage "much higher" than the current $8.25 per hour, touting the Miami Beach City Council's 2016 vote to establish a local minimum above $10, which was later struck down in court. The city is appealing to the state Supreme Court.

His remarks were well received by the small group of activists at Delgado's home on Irma Shores Lane near the University of Central Florida. On her wall hung a photo of Delgado with a young Hillary Clinton, one of several pictures of the Clintons.

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel

Philip Levine answers questions from Puerto Rican activist Pura Delgado and others in Delgado's east Orange County home, during his first visit to the Orlando area as a candidate for Florida governor, on Tuesday, January 9, 2018.

Philip Levine answers questions from Puerto Rican activist Pura Delgado and others in Delgado's east Orange County home, during his first visit to the Orlando area as a candidate for Florida governor, on Tuesday, January 9, 2018. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)

Delgado, 86, praised Levine as "candid" and said she'd support him. "There's nothing more refreshing for a group of people like us to finally see somebody that is a doer," she said.

More than 300,000 people have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria battered the island according to state statistics, though University of Florida researchers warn that figure overstates those who have permanently relocated.

After selling Onboard Media to a French luxury goods company in 2000, Levine was elected mayor of Miami Beach in 2013 and 2015.

He is one of several contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor this year, including former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham; Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum; and Chris King, a Winter Park businessman.

Scott, a Republican, is term-limited and cannot seek re-election. Adam Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner, and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis have launched campaigns on the GOP side. State House Speaker Richard Corcoran also is widely considered a likely contender.

Though he endorsed several priorities of his party's progressive wing, Levine distanced himself from partisan labels, describing himself as part of "team Florida."

"I'm not right, and I'm not left," he said. "I'm forward."

jeweiner@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5171 or @JeffWeinerOS on Twitter

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