At Orlando Weekly's Christmas party last year, Tom Levine showed up looking like someone you'd find in one of the city's panhandling zones: A full, scraggly beard, wild and poofy gray hair, a ratty T-shirt and khaki shorts adorned the man who was trounced by Glenda Hood and Bruce Gordy in last year's mayoral election -- though his offbeat outlook and zany ideas energized the campaign and earned him 10 percent of the vote. Politics, he swore then, was behind him.
A year later, the self-proclaimed leader of the Orlando Peasant Revolt stood last week in the center of a less-than-packed Po' Boys restaurant at his first-ever campaign fund-raiser. (In the mayor's race, he didn't solicit contributions.) The hair is now neatly trimmed, the face shaved, and the hobo look replaced by a pressed shirt and tie. This time, Levine looks serious.
Next year, he'll battle longtime City Commissioner Don Ammerman (who himself is considering a run for mayor in 2004) and fellow challenger Phil Diamond, an attorney, for Ammerman's council seat. Though Levine fared poorly for mayor, he's banking on the fact that he pulled his best numbers in his District 1.
The campaign that made him a quasi-celebrity was built on impractical anti-establishment rhetoric. Here is a guy who advocated police pulling rickshaws down Orange Avenue and shutting down City Hall on warm days to save electricity. But running for office now may be his most impractical move yet, since he doesn't actually live in the district that he hopes to represent.
Because of redistricting, Levine's Catherine Street home sits about a block outside of District 1, which covers southeast Orlando down to the airport. A conspiracist at heart, Levine naturally assumes the new boundary sprang from an Ammerman plot to keep him from running. If he is to qualify for the ballot, Levine must establish another permanent residence by January.
(Until told otherwise by Orlando Weekly, Levine thought he could postpone his move until June, when the victor actually will be sworn in. The city charter and Assistant City Attorney Amy Iennaco, however, disagree. Levine is pursuing a compromise.)
Judging by his campaign literature, realism is still not Levine's forté: He criticizes what he deems to be Ammerman's support of urban sprawl, yet decries infill development, sprawl's polar opposite. Levine also wants to renovate City Hall's council chambers, knocking the commissioners off the dais and returning them to ground level, and forbid city staffers from doing business with non-Orlando companies.
Nonetheless, the freelance outdoors writer insists, "I am extremely normal. What's not normal about me?'
Ammerman accuses Levine of "putting a spin" on Ammerman's position. He says he's not pro-sprawl; he simply understands that, instead of the "unrealistic" goal of stopping growth altogether, it must be managed. "Tom probably dreams more than he's capable of acting on," Ammerman adds.
Levine has taken other comments out of context. He cites an endorsement by Real Radio 104.1-FM radio host Jim Philips -- "Tom Levine would make a great city councilman" -- but fails to note that the comment was made only after Philips dismissed Levine as a legitimate mayoral contender. Also, he boasts in a campaign brochure that he was celebrated as "Best Dose of Reality" in Orlando Weekly's 2000 Best of Orlando issue. But Levine got it ass-backwards: His resounding loss was the reality, not his intrusion into city politics.
Ammerman is obviously vulnerable. Indeed, both Mayor Hood's husband, Charlie, and City Commissioner Daisy Lynum have publicly backed Diamond.
But Levine's Po' Boys event, and his next two fund-raisers -- at Midtown Tavern in Winter Park and Will's Pub -- hint at a struggle to reach those who might actually vote in a typically low-turnout spring election. Even at Po' Boys, there's not much emphasis on donations -- for a $3.50 contribution, you get a buffet and one beer -- and no speech by the man of the hour. Asked how much money he raised, Levine responds: "I don't think we raised anything. We had a good time, and raised some awareness." Then again, maybe that's his only goal.