Sit down with Mike Hightower and people will find he’s as interested in them as they are in him.
They also might find he sometimes has a way of saying a lot and very little all at once.
His wide grin and expressive eyes — and a tendency to lapse into what he apologetically calls his “hokey ramblings” — can make it hard to remember he has for decades ably navigated the halls of money and power in Tallahassee and is a rainmaker of Northeast Florida Republican politics.
After nearly 34 years, Hightower has retired as Florida Blue’s vice president of government and legislative relations — the company’s top lobbyist.
But at 69, Hightower said he does not plan on receding from public life, where in Jacksonville and in Florida, he’s left large impressions.
Ask Gov. Rick Scott about him, and he’ll say:
“For over three decades, Mike Hightower helped hard-working Florida families and individuals afford and have access to the medical services they needed. … Mike has also been a strong influence in shaping economic policies and attracting businesses to create opportunities for Florida families.”
Or ask former Jacksonville mayors, whom he’s helped win office.
Or make some calls down in Miami, and you’ll hear about the money and time Hightower has for more than 30 years poured into the Children’s Resources Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to serving children with developmental disabilities.
The list detailing his community, philanthropic and political involvement is almost comically long:
He’s chairman of the JEA board, one of the most powerful and influential agencies in Jacksonville, where he’s leading the utility through the municipal politics of pension reform and a period of massive uncertainty over the future of potentially costly federal regulations.
He is chairman of JaxBiz, the JAX Chamber’s nonpartisan political committee that makes endorsements in local races.
He is chairman of the Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state’s biggest business advocacy groups.
He was chairman of George Bush’s presidential campaign in Northeast Florida in 2000, and he was the campaign finance chairman for former mayors John Delaney and John Peyton.
He’s currently the state finance chairman for the governor and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Even now, he can tick off a list of upcoming fundraisers he’s hosting at his house in the Riverside-Avondale Historic District — he conservatively estimates at least 35,000 people have been in his home over the years for civic and political fundraisers.
Ever self-effacing, Hightower reflected on his career:
“I was supposed to be a civics teacher,” he said.
Hightower became Florida Blue’s lobbyist at a tumultuous time in 1981, when Blue Cross of Florida and Blue Shield of Florida consolidated into one corporation.
He knew nothing about insurance.
He had spent the previous years as an appointee for President Jimmy Carter, heading up the Florida office of the Farmers Home Administration, a kind of rural housing and urban development agency.
But William E. Flaherty, the president and chief executive officer who led Florida Blue into consolidation and profitability, recognized that Hightower had built important contacts in state government as director of an agency that handled about $300 million in federal money.
“I said, Bill, ‘I don’t know anything about insurance,’ ” Hightower said. “And he said, ‘Mike, I don’t know anything about politics. If you teach me about politics in Florida, I will teach you about insurance.’ ”
The coupling led to what Hightower called an “extraordinary journey.”
“This retirement story would read totally different,” he said, were it not for Florida Blue.
“Mike is honestly a company man. When everyone around him changed jobs, he never did,” said Susie Wiles, a longtime friend and also a fixture in Jacksonville politics.
“Mike has never wavered from being Florida Blue’s guy. You don’t see that anymore.”
The job parlayed perfectly into his love of politics, which came naturally to him. Student council in high school; student government in college.
“I love developing a strategy. I love doing the grass roots,” he said. “I love figuring out how to make a campaign run.”
He credited Ronald Reagan’s presidency as the time he began to shift away from the Democratic Party.
Reagan apparently made quite an impression.
Hightower was chairman of the Duval County Republican Party from 2003-07, a time during which he says Republicans won eight back-to-back elections, registered 26,000 new GOP voters and raised $1.3 million.
He played a critical role in electing Ed Austin mayor of Jacksonville in 1991, and he became a part of his “kitchen cabinet” of advisers. That also goes for former Mayor Delaney, now president of the University of North Florida.
“He has been hugely influential in local government and really in state government,” Delaney said.
“Mike never asked for anything. Blue Cross never asked for a thing. They never talked about a contract for the city’s health care. Mike never asked for an appointment to anything.”
A biography listing his professional achievements says Hightower has served as chairman or finance chairman for over 583 successful state, local and federal candidates since 1972 and that he’s credited for helping raise over $136.3 million for charitable causes, candidates and political parties since 1981.
“It’s still a mystery why these fine folks even take my calls after all these years,” he said of a laundry list of his friends who have helped him over the years. “I’m not sure I would return my calls given the multiple times I have called them.”
FULL OF ENERGY
When he took over as chairman of the Jacksonville chamber of commerce in 2009 — a post traditionally reserved for corporate CEOs or business owners — Hightower talked about memories of his mother paying bills and sometimes finding no money left over. His father, a Valdosta, Ga. native, was a concrete truck driver in Chicago.
“That story is happening in hundreds of homes,” he said.
His friends say that experience helps explain his energetic involvement in local civic, charitable and political causes.
Energetic may actually be an understatement: There is a legend that he’s traveled nearly 1 million miles in his career, most of which occurred between Jacksonville and Tallahassee.
Hightower pegs the number at about 970,000 miles.
“We did a roast of him several years ago, and we talked about how many times he would drive to Tallahassee and back,” said state Sen. John Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House and chairman of the state Republican Party. “He knows the road between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, I assure you.”
Thrasher said Hightower has been a fixture in Tallahassee, where he said Hightower lobbied for Florida Blue full time but also devoted himself to Jacksonville issues.
In the late ’90s, when Thrasher was up for the speaker position, Hightower and a unified group of influential local Republicans — a group they would call Team North Florida — backed his bid.
“He cares incredibly about Jacksonville,” Thrasher said. “It’s always on the top of his agenda.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to summarize Hightower’s community involvement.
“He’s a pillar in this community,” said JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis.
Hightower’s term on the JEA board, which ends in February, is the second time he’s served. And it’s been a busy time for JEA.
Mayor Alvin Brown wants the utility to help the city pay down its unfunded pension liability. The utility is still digging out from billions of dollars in debt and searching for new sources of revenue as electric and water fees face industry-wide and unprecedented declines.
“With Mike, you know what you’ve got. You’ve got enthusiasm, passion and leadership to do the right thing,” said Paul McElroy, JEA’s chief executive officer. “He has led with passion and wisdom. … He’s always pushed us forward.”
Mark Mills was director of the Jacksonville Regional Political Leadership Institute from 2009 until this year — Hightower served as the institute’s chairman for the last three years.
The program, administered through the chamber, was a nonpartisan leadership development program for those considering running for office. Several of its graduates, including Mayor Alvin Brown, hold office now or are on ballots this year and next.
It’s now expanded into a multistate nonprofit, but Mills said the program in Jacksonville, under Hightower’s leadership, helped develop the model it now uses in Tampa Bay, San Diego and Northern Virginia.
“Mike’s contribution with his time, enthusiasm and especially his expertise, have been immeasurable,” Mills said. “In a way, his imprint is on our public leadership programs literally from coast to coast.”
Hightower said he’s ready for something new, though he doesn’t know what that is just yet.
And then there’s that 9-month-old granddaughter, Gracie, who will be a lot easier to see.
“He talked about retiring for 10 years, but I think he just wanted to keep helping people,” Delaney said “He’s all give and no take, and those are rare to find.”
But make no mistake: He plans to stay involved. And that means he’s not yet retiring his signature yellow tie with this blue dress shirts and white collars.
“I am retiring from an extraordinary company but not from this extraordinary city and community,” Hightower said.
Nate Monroe: (904) 359-4289