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The Real Estate Investments Of Florida's Candidates For Governor

In Florida, rampant development has always been the mega-issue that drives all of the other issues. Nearly 1,000 people per day move to the state, powering the economy, but also trampling the natural environment, driving up competition for housing and creating traffic hellscapes.

The Real Estate Investments Of Florida's Candidates For Governor
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum

This year, real estate prices are hitting record highs at the same time that an ecological crisis is visibly unfolding. Green slime is coursing out of Lake Okeechobee — which is polluted from fertilizer on sugar farms and sewage from rapid development — and moving along rivers to the coasts. Meanwhile, because of a red tide in the oceans, hundreds of dead turtles and manatees are washing up on shore. None of this bodes well for the state’s all-important tourism industry.

Florida’s current governor, the Trump-aligned, former healthcare exec Rick Scott, is term-limited and vacating his role to run for the Senate. In his wake is a wide-open field of candidates vying to take his place, including a billionaire developer, an affordable housing entrepreneur and a real estate heiress. As the Aug. 28 primary approaches, Bisnow took a look at the front-runners’ work and holdings:

DEMOCRATS

Andrew Gillum: Gillum is the Democratic candidate most like the average citizen: He’s the son of a construction worker and says he owes a $377K mortgage on his home. Gillum was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission while still a college student in 2003 and currently serves as mayor. He has lamented policies that draw big businesses but fail to bring good-paying jobs, saying that Florida cannot be known as a “cheap date state.” He has proposed setting the corporate tax level at “a modest 7.75%, which allows our richest corporations to receive a tax cut and keeps our corporate tax rate more than 1% lower than California” — a move he believes can recoup at least $1B to rebuild public schools and pay teachers $50K to start. Investigators looking into corruption at City Hall have examined Gillum’s ties to developers, but have not accused Gillum of wrongdoing. 

Gwen Graham: Graham’s grandfather was a major South Florida landholder and her family founded the city of Miami Lakes. Graham’s father, Bob Graham, was a governor and senator, and her aunt is former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Gwen Graham is a lawyer who spent years as a stay-at-home mom, then parlayed a role as PTA president into a job with the Tallahassee-area school system. She then served two years in Congress.

But her $14.4M net worth comes mostly from her share of her family’s Graham Cos. Since 2013, the company has been working with Triple Five, a Canadian developer planning the country’s biggest megamall. Graham Cos. sold off a parcel needed for the mall, and will develop an adjacent, 4M SF parcel. Gwen Graham’s more progressive Democratic rivals recently started to hammer her on this, but some say that her more centrist positions would be an asset against Republicans in the general election. Her top donors include James D. Finch, owner of Phoenix Construction Services, and Jim Pugh, a Winter Park multifamily developer who runs Epoch Properties. 

Jeff Greene: Greene made his early money fixing up houses in western Massachusetts and renting them out. Once he had a mini empire, he followed hedge fund manager John Paulson and shorted housing, turning $50M into $500M. He went on to invest in California and then moved to Florida, where he has developed apartments, a hotel and a school. His current net worth is $3.3B. Greene has talked about how income inequality could lead to civil unrest — and even holds an annual conference called “Managing the Disruption” to anticipate this. A longtime member of Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach, Greene now says he is “Trump’s worst nightmare.”

Jeff Greene
Jeff Greene and Mary Callahan Erdoes at the World Economic Forum, 2015

Chris King: A devout Christian who studied religion at Harvard and picked up a law degree at the University of Florida, King founded Elevation Financial Group in Winter Park at the start of the Great Recession. The firm raises funds from private investors, buys dilapidated multifamily and senior living facilities, renovates them and operates or sells them. King has touted his ability to deliver above-market returns while improving affordable housing. He has said that as governor, he would stop the practice of raiding affordable housing funds and has floated the idea of a tax on bullets. For vowing to fight "Big Sugar," he has been endorsed by environmentalists and boat captains fighting Florida's water crisis. King is an active philanthropist and his father is an attorney who led a successful fight against gerrymandering in the state. 

Phillip Levine: Levine became a millionaire by founding Royal Media Partners to handle marketing and media for cruise ships. He has voiced strong support for the cruise ship industry, which drives hotel stays and spending in Florida ports. He now owns $103M in real estate and served as mayor of Miami Beach. In that role, he was quick to take action against against sea-level rise, installing pumps and seawalls, though he was criticized for moving too fast — the pumps allegedly sent fecal bacteria into surrounding waters — and for prioritizing improvements near his own properties. Levine has proposed closing corporate tax exemptions and loopholes and using revenues for schools. According to the Miami Herald, Levine’s top donors include prominent Miami Beach landowners: Leonard and Alex Blavatnik, a Ukranian-born oil magnate with investments in Miami Beach hotels and condos; developers Scott, Craig and Gerald Robins; and John Christopher Burch, owner of Burch Creative Capital and Faena House in South Beach.

REPUBLICANS

Adam Putnam: Putnam hasn’t had a workaday job since he was 22 years old and elected to the state legislature. He then served five terms in Congress, and was elected the state's commissioner of agriculture in 2010. Putnam is worth $9.1M, largely from a stake in his family’s citrus and cattle business, Putnam Groves, in Polk County. A 2012 Palm Beach Post investigation found that Putnam's family made millions on a sweetheart deal selling land to a regional agency. More recently, Putnam boasted about receiving an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which resulted in citizens boycotting another Putnam backer, the grocery chain Publix. Putnam is the only candidate taking money from the sugar industry, seen as the main polluter of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Ron DeSantis: Putnam's long career in state politics means he can discuss minutiae like how many schools there are in Jasper County. Ron DeSantis, however, took the fast-track approach: hit Fox News and loudly support the current president. Unabashedly pro-Trump — DeSantis introduced legislation that would kill funding for special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — the congressman is an Iraq War veteran and Navy lawyer with degrees from Yale and Harvard Law. He made waves this summer with a TV commercial in which he urges his toddler daughter to “build the wall” with toy bricks. DeSantis is worth $301K. His real estate ties are more like an average American’s than his opponents: a rental property and mortgages on two homes in Northeast Florida.