Is Jeff Greene a rich jerk? That seems to be the focus of most of the inquiries into the Democratic Senate candidate in the throes of the summer news cycle. In this interview, The Reid Report searches for substance in this year's hottest tabloid candidacy. Read on and judge for yourself ...
Greene has been accused of everything from single-handedly tanking the mortgage market to being a 55-year-old, long lost member of the Kardashian clan: living a wild, party-boy life of vomit-soaked yachting with Mike Tyson, Lindsey Lohan and a bevy of Ukranian strippers. Of course, as with anything, the truth is more complicated. Greene scored a front page retraction from the St. Pete Times over a story that implied Tyson -- the best man at Greene's 2007 wedding -- did drugs aboard Greene's yacht, the Summerwind, when the two were hanging tight in 2005. Tyson says he did lots of drugs back then, but "not on the boat". Greene threatening to sue, and ultimately, the paper backed down. Now, his team is pushing back on a story tying him to a California condo flipping fraud scheme. (In that case, a campaign spokesman says Greene sold the 300 California condos to a single buyer, who then phonied up individual sales with straw buyers using Greene's name, without his knowledge.) But the stories of business deals gone wrong -- but Greene making money anyway -- just keep coming.
Greene's wealth is an irresistible shiny object to a media obsessed with money and celebrity, and he is indeed, very rich -- worth about $2 billion according to Forbes, which lists him as the world's 488th richest man. He and his wife Mei (real name Mei Sze Chan), a former real estate executive some 20 years his junior, who's originally from Australia, own a sprawling mansion in Palm Beach called La Bellucia. And that's just one of five homes in the Greene portfolio.
But Greene doesn't wear his status on his sleeve. He dresses like your average businessman -- with no noticeable bling. He doesn't tote an entourage, and is usually in the company of just one or two staffers. He and his wife have a nanny, but reportedly, Mei Greene's frequent absence from the campaign trail is due to her being a full-time mom to their toddler (and campaign strategist.)
Still, how he made his money has become an issue in the Senate campaign. Greene's climb from middle class kid to titan began with your garden variety real estate investments, and escalated as Americans on and off Wall Street were gambling on an exploding housing bubble. Greene was one of the few investors who saw the inevitable pop coming (or one of the few who were willing to accept it,) and he made some smart bets against the House. Greene says he nearly lost everything during the 1990s when he was a solo real estate investor, and having watched his father lose his livelihood when Greene was a teenager, he made the investments -- through an unusual, new financial instrument called "naked credit default swaps" -- because he was determined not to go broke. And while he's being clobbered by his Democratic opponent, Kendrick Meek, for allegedly profiting off the misery of American homeowners, the truth is, Greene may have been the prophet (and profit) of doom, but he wasn't driving the car that wrecked so many Americans' (and so many Floridians') lives -- he was holding a betting slip against the car insurance company.
The trouble for Greene, however, is that in his run for the U.S. Senate, he's seeking to portray himself as a humble public servant, an image that clashes with the hard-nosed money man who once called in to the government's mortgage help line pretending to be a condo owner behind on his mortgage, to get a bead on where the housing market was going, and whether the federal government might intervene.
Since Greene entered the race in May, the Meek campaign has attacked him relentlessly for allegedly profiting from the misery of hard-hit homeowners. They call him the "king of credit default swaps" -- the "meltdown mogul" whose investments were "financial weapons of mass destruction" that helped bring the American economy to its knees. And while Greene has effectively challenged some of those claims, including one implying that Warren Buffet had made the "financial WMD" claim about Greene personally, Greene's negative ratings in the polls have been rising, in large part due to the effectiveness and simplicity of the attacks, versus the complexity of describing Greene's real estate dealings.
And in what has become one of the most vicious Democratic primaries in recent Florida memory, Greene has given as good as he's gotten, attacking Meek as a "failed politician" and accusing him of corruption -- attacking a deal with a developer that involved Meek's mother, former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, and which was supposed to bring a biotech facility to the District, prompting Meek to declare him to be a "bad man" -- and one who is attacking a woman in her 80s for political gain.
Greene campaign spokesman Luis Viszcaino insists that Greene respects Meek's mother, and is simply pointing out an ethically dubious deal involving her and her son, but the inclusion of Carrie Meek, in Greene's debate talking points and most recently, in a campaign mailer, has prompted an outcry from some African-Americans. Miami-Dade NAACP president Victor Curry -- a prominent Democrat -- called Greene "mean," and said that based on his attacks on Carrie Meek, he could not support Greene if he were to be the nominee.
That complicates what has been an intriguing strategy by the Greene campaign, which has aligned itself with the political micro-machine associated with ousted Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones, in a district that overlaps with Meek's Congressional District. How Greene came to be supported by the Liberty City Democratic Club, and how he came to hire the Hardemons, Spence Jones' political fixers in Liberty City, has become something of an intrigue in Miami. Greene has gotten credit from some African-Americans for getting there first -- he held a rally in the poverty and crime-ravaged Liberty Square housing projects before Meek, who represents the area, got to town. And he has made friends among some Black Miamians who have become impatient with Meek.
"They called us," Greene said of Eric Thompson and Roy Hardemon, who founded the Liberty City club after splintering with a similar local group. "They said 'we'd like you to come down. We've had Kendrick Meek, we thought his mother was great, but he has not been here."
"I'm in that same category with Kendrick," Meek supporter Alcee Hastings told me this week. "(People say) 'I haven't seen you.' Well I spend several months of my life in Washington D.C. Try as I might, I can't be there all the time."
Viszcaino said that when Greene and his team toured the abandoned would-be biotech site, they were told by the activists, "you've been here a half hour and that's longer than Kendrick Meek has ever been here."
"I think they feel neglected by him," said Greene. "All I know is the people there are not happy. They feel they've been neglected. It's a blighted area." And while he went on to list a number of remedies for places like Liberty City: ("give money to these areas -- and I'm talking about real legislation not earmarks. Programs to provide early childhood education, after school progs, this is not some fat, this is the guts of what we should be standing up and doing, these kids are our future...") Greene didn't mention those ideas in his Liberty City stump speech. Nor did he bring up the one of the issues most on the minds of people in that neighborhood: crime.
Now, however, Greene's attacks on Carrie Meek -- a revered figure in the black Miami community, threaten to harden African-American support for Meek, who accuses Greene of buying black support (and marginal support at that, since Meek insists the disgruntled in his district are few.)
But Greene has done some things that are outside the box for a white candidate facing a black opponent in his own backyard. His campaign alone responded to an invitation from Embrace Girls Foundation to speak (with his wife) at one of their teas, through which the group of young inner city girls have met judges, celebrities, and even Hillary Clinton. The organizers said they had been trying to get Meek to attend for two years. Greene recently pledged to donate his Senate salary, if elected, to Florida charities, including Embrace. And he continues to hold events in the black community, including a recent Liberty City block party, and a "back to school" event and school supply giveaway at a popular restaurant/nightclub in Miami Gardens -- also in Meek's district.
In the 20 minutes or so that I spent with Greene, I didn't see any obvious evidence of evil. If anything, Greene comes across as more band geek than Machiavelli, though you do get the feeling that in a business deal, he'd drink your milkshake (then make you wash the glass.)
Indeed, people who know Greene confirm he can be a difficult guy to deal with in a business setting, though one person formerly associated with the campaign preferred to describe him as "driven."
"He's the kind of guy who if he asks you for ten and you give him ten, he asks why you didn't make it 12," the source said, adding that Greene's hard-charging personality was likely what soured his relationship with Joe Trippi, the former Howard Dean political wizard who used to be a Greene consultant before being replaced by Tad Devine.
Greene's manner of dealing with people hasn't always helped his P.R. He once settled a libel suit for allegedly verbally abusing an employee, he has been slammed by former employees on his yacht -- and by officials in Belize, who say the Summerwind damaged a coral reef there (which Greene denies) -- and he even got into a verbal and legal brawl with actor/director Ron Howard, who reportedly is so sour on Greene, he has donated money to Meek.
Beyond personality, Greene has faced other accusations during the campaign that could prove damaging to his chances on August 24.
One such accusation: that he is a Republican -- not something you want to be in the heat of a Democratic primary. And indeed Greene only registered as a Democrat in 2008, the same year he changed his residency from California to Florida (Greene says his ties to the state go deeper, since his parents moved to the state when he was in high school, and his mother lives in a condo in Palm Beach.) While stressing his Democratic pedigree, Greene admitted to having been a "Reagan Democrat" in the 1980s, after graduating from Harvard Business School (from which you'd be hard pressed to emerge as anything other than a Republican.) The only other time in his life that he ran for office, he did so as a Republican. And yet, Greene claims he can't remember whether he voted for Reagan in 1980. When I pressed him on it, he admitted to being disappointed with Jimmy Carter, but stuck to what the blogworld has come to call his "Gippernesia."
"Look, there was a huge Reagan Democrat [movement] in the ... 80s," Greene said. "I had always been a Democrat. I was raised in Massachusetts, the land of the Kennedys. I got very frustrated at that time in my life, with the Iranian hostage crisis, we had the misery index, gas lines... I remember that I was frustrated, but I don't remember that I went and voted for Ronald Reagan."
But why not just cop to it and move on? "I ran as a Republican in 1982, if I did remember I'd say it. I'm just not gonna lie. it's not intentionally. I'm not willing to say what's convenient and expedient. I can't remember whether I voted for him."
Greene also has reportedly been an infrequent voter, which you'd think would make each experience in the voting booth a bit more memorable. Still, whether or not he voted for the Gipper, Greene did admit to being a supporter, and to having been spurred into politics by Reagan's example.
"After he got in, I supported him and I ran as a Republican," Greene said, though he was careful to pivot back to Democratic lingo before things got too far afield. "I supported him and I was glad he was in, I think a lot of people were proud of what he brought from the point of view of patriotism, but I think what he did was a big mistake, with the economy and supply side economics... I think it was a failure."
On whether his yacht docked illegally in Cuba, and his many, evolving explanations of how the Summerwind wound up docked in Havana (plus the later retracted claim that he was actually in Cuba to visit totems of the Jewish community there,) Greene said he simply forgot all the details with the passage of time, but looking back, realized that they'd stopped because of a hydraulics problem with his boat. And as he reconstructed events, he remembered that he'd visited a synagogue.
As for the tales of mistreating employees on his yacht, Greene dismissed those too, saying that with all the people who work on a yacht over many years, he can't even remember who the complainants are.
Greene seems frustrated by the fascination with his lifestyle, which he complained has kept the focus off substantive issues. But his campaign has sometimes helped to feed the beast -- their first robocall to voters was from his friend Star Jones, former co-host of "The View," and he volunteered during the interview that he's also friends with Bill Maher, Oliver Stone, directors Brett Ratner and Michael Bay, and singer Natalie Cole.
"I have plenty of friends in that industry," Greene said, though he insists not Lindsey Lohan, who was famously photographed with him in St. Barths over New Year's, when she reportedly stayed on his yacht. "I don't even have her phone number," he said. "The whole thing is so stupid."
"My friends who are peers are deans of universities..." added Greene, who speaks so rapidly, he moves on to the next thought before completing the first, "it's not like I was hanging out with Lindsey Lohan. She hasn't called me, she hasn't talked to me since New Year's. A close friend of mine asked if she could stay... [they said] could you do me a big favor, she's coming in tonight, and it's a good friend so I said 'okay, two nights.' I walked into town with her once and they've got all these pictures of me."
On matters of substance, Greene's positions are not all that different from his rival Meek's.
On the Bush tax cuts, which he benefited nicely from, Greene said, "I think they should expire the tax cuts for the wealthy but I think they should keep them in for the middle class."
Both men are pro-choice, liberal on gay rights, and both are uber-hawks on Israel. Both formerly supported the Cuban embargo, though Greene has now "evolved" on Cuba travel (perhaps coincidentally, after his own brush with Havana.)
Greene's opinion also morphed on the subject of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City. When I spoke to him, he was non-committal, saying "I haven't formed an opinion on it, (but) if somebody wants to build a mosque and it's for the right reasons, and there's plenty of Muslims in this country, and they deserve to have a place of worship like everyone else. If it's being done to antagonize people then it's not a good idea, but it's up to the people of New York."
But after President Obama made a statement supporting the Park 51 organization's right to build the mosque, Greene blasted the president's statement, and came out unequivocally against the project, aligning himself with Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who vehemently oppose the Islamic Center commonly misnamed the "Ground Zero mosque."
Greene also veers off the Democratic talking points when it comes to the economy. He is critical of the stimulus package, which he doesn't believe produced significant numbers of jobs, and sounds more like a CNBC anchor than a Democratic candidate once he gets on a roll talking about economics. But he says he doesn't buy the Republican argument that tax cuts create jobs, either.
"The idea that tax cuts for rich people are going to create jobs is ridiculous," he said. "(They) create jobs at Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Bentley dealerships, but they're not creating jobs for average Americans."
So how would he turn around the jobless recovery?
"You use fiscal policy to target job creating industries," he said, gesturing at the counter of the Hollywood deli where we spoke, pointing out a woman who appeared to be the manager, and unleashing a rapid-fire word blizzard. "Or you do a payroll tax holiday, so this lady says 'I think I'll add a new employee or stay open a couple extra hours.' ... Maybe a tax break would push her over the top to add an employee. Or you target certain behavior. You have an old home and the government says you get a tax credit if you weatherize your home... you think, 'I get a tax credit and half of it is paid by the tax credit, then I'll get it,' and it's a no-brainer. You call up a bunch of companies and all of a sudden all these weatherizing companies are hiring people. The other thing is that you need lending. These banks are not lending."
Greene also doesn't buy the conspiracy theory, voiced by some liberals, that banks are holding back in order to punish the Obama administration, or hurt the president. "Banks aren't lending because they don't have the confidence as to where the econ is going. They're buying government backed securities at 3 or 4 percent. If you're a bank, why would you want to make a loan at 6 or 7 percent when you can buy a security that's issued by the same entity you're buying from? It's a scam. And who depends on the money from CDs is mainly older people, which Florida has more of than other places, so seniors are getting low rates on CDs, (while) banks borrow at zero."
So what would he do about it? "Legislate that banks have to lend certain percentages of their capital."
Greene doesn't seem wildly enthusiastic about the Democrats he hopes to join in the Senate, though he gave credit to Majority Leader Harry Reid for passing healthcare and financial regulatory reform "in these difficult times."
As for President Obama: "Based on the hand he was dealt, I think he's done a good job. He started out (when) we were losing 750,000 jobs a month, a deficit, two wars ... people would like to see things get better right away. I would too. But this economy was hit with a nuclear missile. Now we're picking up the pieces."
Asked to assign blame for the economy catastrophe, Greene seems to single out two groups: consumers themselves, and his favorite target: Washington politicians (read: Kendrick Meek.)
"This is what happens when you get ten years of people over-consuming. These guys who have been in Washington, they should have seen where this economy was going. The economy isn't the same as when you were a kid or I was a kid. Manufacturing isn't there in the same way anymore."
As for the guy who's been in Washington, and against whom he is now locked in a vicious primary, Greene says he never intended for it to get ugly. He even donated $500 to Meek's campaign in the months before getting into the race, although he brushes off the donation as unintentional: "I was going to an event and wanted to meet Barney Frank, so donating to Meek was the cost to get in."
There is clearly no love lost between the two men, for which each blames the other.
"When I first got in this race, I called Kendrick, the day I filed, and told him I wanted to keep this positive. We're very different candidates. If someone is looking for a guy who knows his way around Washington and can put together a bill very efficiently, and kind of knows his way around the Capitol and has a lot of friends there and is a Washington insider, that's Kendrick."
After that back-handed compliment, Greene explained how he would get along in Washington if he were to be elected to the Senate.
"It's gonna take a learning curve," he said. "I'm gonna have to put together a staff and figure out how to put together bills and learn the culture of Washington. But if someone is looking for a businessman who is self-made, who spent his whole life creating jobs, who has a much more different vision for the economy and has a much better background to deal with the things we've been talking about, which is where do we position ourselves globally, I'm the better choice."
Greene was unapologetic about his harsh attacks on Meek, whom he has called on to request an ethics investigation of himself, Charlie Rangel style, over the failed development project for which Carrie Meek received a consulting fee and a car and for which Kendrick Meek sought earmarks. The developer, Dennis Stackhouse, now faces criminal charges for allegedly misappropriating county funds he received for the project. And his campaign has attacked Meek's use of a taxpayer-funded car.
"As far as I'm concerned the culture of corruption in Washington is criminal, whether it's illegal or not," Greene said. "It's not right because my feeling is, why should our tax dollars go to get money for a guy like Dennis Stackhouse because Kendrick Meek's mother gets $90,000 and his chief of staff gets $13,000" (in the form of help from Stackhouse with a house down payment, which Meek says he knew nothing about.) "That's our money. We have a $13 trillion national debt. Why are we taking our money and spending it to reward Dennis Stackhouse? As far as I'm concerned it's dead wrong."
And yet, Greene has pledged to support Meek if the Congressman becomes the Democratic nominee Tuesday.
Asked to explain the apparent contradiction, Greene said, "I'm a Democrat. The last thing I want to see is a Republican Senate to obstruct the policies of our president. I hope I'm the nominee of our party. Any Democrat who says he's gonna caucus with our party, I'd support him. Kendrick Meek has not made that pledge to me."
With the race coming down to the wire, Greene can count on a handful of Democrats in his corner, while Meek is bringing the entire, national Democratic establishment to bear -- including former President Clinton and current President Barack Obama.
Greene has found strength in the condos, among older and Jewish voters, who he says he can better relate to.
"I have a real connection to the senior citizens of Florida and what they're going through," Greene said, pushing back on a story earlier in the summer that quoted him seeming to suggests Meek couldn't win the state because he's black. "It's not racial in any way," he said. "I'm 55 years old. I got an offer to join AARP."
Greene sees the phenomenon of rich candidates like himself, Republican gubernatorial candidates Rick Scott in Florida and Meg Whitman in California, Carly Fiorina, who is challenging Senator Barbara Boxer in California, and locally, Rudy Moise, who is running to replace Meek, and showing off a million-dollar war chest all around town to try and win the Democratic primary -- as a natural consequence of the country's economic collapse.
"I think it's about people who have been successful and they feel its great to have success of your own, but the country's falling apart."
"I know that our country is facing challenges like we've never faced before," Greene added. "We need the best, brightest people in every walk of life to commit their time and talent to make this country work. People can't sit in the bleachers and watch the others on the stage. we're mortgaging our future to foreign countries to live a lifestyle we really can't afford. It can't go on forever. I know we can do better and I'm determined to make a big contribution to turn this country around."
Greene expressed some sympathy for the tea party movement, calling it "one more example of people who are frustrated, angry and fed up with the failure government."
"They're expressing it in a way that I don't agree with politically," he said, "but I share their frustration. We have diff approaches. Their approach is let's shut down the government. Like Marco Rubio says he wants to cut taxes -- I don't know what he wants to close first, the fire department, cut off Social Security, close the police department, close the schools ... to me its just rhetoric. It's based on rhetoric, but its not realistic. You want to cut taxes but we're 1.4 trillion in the hole."
As for what he wants to do should he get to Washington, Greene says he wants to be a part of bringing about change -- incrementally: "We don't want revolutionary change (in America.) We don't want to say lets change the whole tax code next week. I think that's what's great about our country. We're a ship that turns slowly. (But) we're in an economic world war, fighting all these other countries for jobs. whoever is the best educated and also creative will be the winner."
And he ended on an optimistic note ... sort of ...before returning to his anti-Washington theme.
"The good news is the middle class is expanding at the fastest pace in global history. Because of our patchwork of immigrants and freedoms to express ourselves ... and I think we should be celebrating that ... we're on the launch pad about to take off into prosperity and growth. Instead, bad policies have caused the opposite to happen. We're not renewing our infrastructure, we're not investing in education. It's a failure of Washington," he said.
And while the polls have begun to tilt against him, Greene sounded cautiously hopeful about his chances on August 24th, and about his ability to deliver if elected in what has to be considered a long shot Senate bid -- even for a guy with $2 billion.
"I have no magic wand, I have a lot of good ideas and hopefully if I get elected, six years later they'll be saying thanks for a job well done."
Cross-posted at The Reid Report
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