Politics & Policy

Jeff Greene for Senate: Hey, How Bad Can He Be?

A novel argument speaks to Florida's Democrats.

Jacksonville, Fla. – Seven weeks and $4 million ago, Jeff Greene was unknown to any of the three Floridas — the liberal south, the swing middle, or the conservative north. What most Floridians know about him today is what he has told them himself in a series of tight-shot TV spots. In the first of these, reflecting the distilled wisdom of 2008, he says roughly, “I’m Jeff Greene. You’ve never heard of me. Vote for me anyway.” In the second, adding nuance to the inevitable “comparison” ad, he says roughly, “I’m Jeff Greene. I’m not as bad as the other guy.” And in the third, seeking to tickle the nerve endings of aroused Obama voters, he says roughly, “I’m Jeff Greene. I’ll bring lots of unspecified change.” Democratic voters in anno mirabile 2010 oddly seem to have found this argument compelling and have rallied in large numbers to Greene’s loud if not quite certain trumpet. In a June Quinnipiac poll, Greene has pulled into a dead heat with Democratic-party favorite and (until seven weeks ago) presumptive nominee Rep. Kendrick Meek.

We thus owe Mr. Greene a little shrift. Here’s the basic file, gleaned from a few curious souls scattered across the state. Jeff Greene is 55, a son of middle-class Worcester, Mass., whose distinctive accents make the occasional return appearance when he speaks at high speed. He is well educated, Jewish, newly married, the father of an infant son. He is not, despite the insistence of the New York Times to the contrary, a “real estate mogul.” After graduating from Johns Hopkins and (to settle for the mincing verb) attending Harvard Business School, he moved to California and made a score in the real-estate boom of the Eighties. Off the job, he lived hard, famously hard. As boom turned to bust, however, a pall fell over Greene’s bachelor lifestyle and he was forced to begin the tedious process of unwinding his leveraged investments. By the early Nineties, he was all but tapped out, a nine-figure victim of market mistiming.

The story of Jeff Greene might have ended right there, but, in a real-American version of the second act, he clambered back up the money tree. Within only 15 years, he had earned his own parking place in the Forbes 400. According to the magazine, Greene’s “number” hit $1.2 billion. (There’s lascivious interest in Greene’s finances, but, unlike Crist, Rubio, and Meek, Greene refuses to release even partial tax returns.) In 2007, Greene married an Asian-American woman he had met at a party thrown by his pal Mike Tyson, and in choosing Iron Mike as his best man, he made one of the most buzzworthy wedding-day decisions since Oswald Mosley, marrying Diana Mitford in the fascist wedding of the year, selected Josef Goebbels. Greene then picked up stakes and moved to Palm Beach, where he began to live not so much hard as large, consuming in a mode conspicuous even by indigenous standards. Greene’s collection of rich-guy toys was so over the top that even the local arrivistes began to snipe. In a classic quote to the Tampa Tribune, Greene put the grumblers in their place: “They’ll attack me for my success in making money. It’s called ‘the American Dream.’”

Ah, if only that were so. Greene made much the largest piece of his new fortune in the derivatives business, trading exotic securities called uncovered credit-default swaps. He anticipated the bursting of the housing bubble and, characteristically, he went all in. Which is to say that he shorted the American Dream by betting that homeowners would not be able to hold on to their homes. As I may have hinted earlier, Greene’s candidacy could find purchase only on a 2010-type track: He’s essentially running as Black Bart the Foreclosure King in a state teeming with the newly homeless. So far, he’s brazening it out, flashing the forensic skills he must have picked up by mail-order course from the Famous Democrats School: Jeff Greene, fat-cat banker, now declares that he’s running because somebody, by cracky, must stop the “fat cat bankers.”

In an even more comical sidebar, the hapless Meek has taken to criticizing Greene for trafficking in “undercover credit default swaps.” It’s unclear whether Meek is merely underbriefed, as he is on a variety of subjects, or is trying to cast sinister light across Green’s character, in the manner of the Appalachian pol who mentions with practiced nonchalance at the ice-cream social that “I hear my opponent’s sister is a thespian up there in Greenwich Village.” The point is undecided only because Meek has earned a reputation on the stump as a particularly dull pair of scissors. Two weeks ago, for instance, he attacked Greene for being a carpetbagger, unaware, it seems, that almost everybody in Florida arrived here five minutes ago.

Greene’s political resume is either remarkably sparse or ingeniously well disguised. In the public record, I can find only two trace amounts of campaign activity. Last November, he gave Representative Meek $500 for the current race. This enthusiasm for Meek, as we’ve seen, was not meant to last. The other instance occurred back in 1982, when Greene ran for Congress in southern California. People close to Greene have tried to suggest that the race is evidence of his deep and longstanding interest in public policy, but that hopeful spin has been overtaken by the obdurate fact that he ran as a Reagan Republican in San Fernando Valley. (He lost in the primary.) When confronted by Democrats fretting over this youthful indiscretion, Greene has explained it as a kind of temporary insanity induced by exposure to crude capitalist ideas at Harvard, which would quite possibly be the first recorded instance of such contagion. What the 1982 campaign story suggests to the political class is more arresting: namely, that Greene’s belief system may be as chameleonic as the state’s famously adaptable governor, Charlie Crist. In contemporary Florida politics, lamentably, a principle-free approach to public service is not widely regarded as a bad thing.

With Greene’s new status as a viable candidate for the nomination, the narrative here has changed course once again. The consolidating analysis on the Democratic side goes something like this: “Kendrick’s a nice guy. We loved his mother” — Carrie Meek, Kendrick’s immediate predecessor in the House — “but the big lug is a sure loser against a shark like Crist or a conviction type like Rubio. With Kendrick out of the way, we could make a quickie deal with Crist and steal the seat for the Dems. But we can’t criticize Kendrick openly or we’ll pay a price with the black vote, now and maybe later, too. Carrie’s got a long memory on her. If Greene wins the nomination, on the other hand, all bets are off. Anybody can knock Greene. Who’s going to object? Mike Tyson? With Kendrick out of the way and Greene stumbling around like a newbie, we could get Schumer and Emanuel involved, put together a nice goody bag for Charlie — and then run rings around cement-shoes Rubio in a tactical sprint to November 2.” That’s overstated for effect, but not by much. Could it happen? Sure. It’s 2010. Who would have thought that Charlie Crist’s campaign, which was dead in the water only two months ago, could be saved by an oil spill? Where does that scenario show up in the old computer model?

The Democratic primary is set for August 24, after which the Florida political world starts all over again. Don’t touch that dial.

– Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.

Neal B. FreemanMr. Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line. This article has been adapted from his new book, Walk with Me: An Invitation to Faith.

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