Mike Hightower, now in his eighth decade on the planet and nearing the end of his fourth decade as a major player in Florida politics, has several distinguishing traits.
One: his yellow necktie. The signature raiment is referred to by his son as part of his “costume.”
Another, more compelling, characteristic: a sense of optimism and the long view of changes in the lobbying profession, which came to the fore in a wide-ranging conversation with FloridaPolitics.com Friday afternoon in Jacksonville.
Among those issues discussed: assuming the presidency of Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, a 15-year-old organization of especial note after Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran very vocally expressed an intention to make the job of lobbyist a bit tougher.
As for lobbying reform, Hightower welcomes the challenge: “We celebrate it. Bring it on.”
FAPL, said Hightower, is intended to ensure the “integrity” of the lobbying profession, with courses on ethics and codification of professional standards.
The guiding principle, according to Hightower?
“Whatever the rules are, we’re going to comply. Professionals always comply,” he said.
“It’s not up to us to determine whether the rules are good or bad,” Hightower added. “As long as we are complying, and we are transparent, and our word is our bond, if anyone wants to talk about us professionally, or talk about us as an individual, you do so at your own risk.”
“This is my 37th session coming up. Anytime you’ve spent that amount of time,” Hightower said, the people in the process become a “second family.”
“Marriages, divorces … births and deaths … children and grandchildren … hiring and firing, we’ve talked about it. It’s a family,” Hightower said.
“The profession of lobbying is a profession. It is guaranteed under the First Amendment. It’s important,” he added, before launching into an extended, anecdote-rich definition of “special interests” as being an interest that drives people, for personal or professional needs, into advocating for an issue.
“Absolutely we’re special interests,” Hightower declared.
“When people use the word special interests with a sneer or a little bit of malign in their voice,” Hightower added, they don’t get the process.
The phrase is “a reflection of Florida,” he said. “Every facet of our civic, governmental, business, private life. The three or four thousand people registered are there for a reason.”
“They’ve become subject matter experts and role models,” Hightower continued, extolling the lobbying profession. “They work both sides of the aisle on specific issues and very unique subject matter. They’ve spent their profession becoming the very best.”
“Florida, with our transparency laws, I don’t think any state comes close to us,” Hightower added.
Hightower pointed out that Florida has “some of the most transparent lobbying rules in the country.”
“We will be transparent. We have no problems,” Hightower continued. “You cannot legislate morality. In every profession, the true professionals will follow the rules.”
“In every profession,” Hightower said, “you will have people who skirt the rules.”
“When that happens, all you need is one public hanging,” he added. “There’s an unwritten rule in Tallahassee. When people don’t follow the rules, they may be successful for a year or two.”
Then, Hightower said, “they find themselves on an island” and “their cause or client suffers.”
“When they say ‘lobbying reform,’” Hightower said, “bring it on. Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists will comply.”
“We’re not afraid of complying,” Hightower said.
Regarding the Corcoran era itself, Hightower noted that “if you’re going to be in the process, you play by the rules. Period. End of paragraph. If we don’t comply [with] the rules, there are consequences.”
“The successful, committed professional lobbyist” will work within those rules, he said.
“Some speakers and some presidents of the Senate and some governors,” said Hightower, “have said they didn’t see lobbying reform as a priority. This speaker sees it as a priority.”
“He gave us a set of rules,” Hightower added, “and as professionals, we’re going to do what it takes to play by the rules to represent their principle, their client and their profession.”
“I’ve been there for 37 years. I’ve been referred to as a lot of things by a lot of people. And you just focus on what your job is. Make sure your word is your bond, don’t lie. And if you do those things,” Hightower said, “people will trust you.”
“There still is an unwritten code in Tallahassee, Florida, that your word is your bond. It’s not written down anywhere. It’s understood, and it’s known.”
“And if you violate it,” Hightower added, “you’re no longer part of the profession.”
In the era of term limits, with a legislator forced to stop at eight years in one chamber, Hightower asserted that the role of the lobbyist as an educator is even more integral.
“I don’t know any lobbyist, a true professional, who says they’re going to stop at eight years,” Hightower said. “As long as it’s fun, and I’m doing well, and I’m well-compensated, I’m going to do it. It’s a great profession.”
“It’s all part of the process — the political process,” Hightower said, that drives public policy, moves legislation, and, perhaps, becoming a “resource” to bring people into the process to drive good public policy.
Unprompted, Hightower then mounted an affirmative defense of campaign fundraising.
“People say you guys raise money. Well, yeah, that’s OK. You’ve got to disclose it. With all due respect to anyone in the press,” Hightower said, “you guys have yet to give free time to anyone on TV, in the newspaper. Print ads — I think they’ve got to pay for that.”
“We’re part of the entire process. And transparency does not bother a true professional within the lobbying profession.”
“If you try to be cute,” Hightower said, “you get caught.”
“One of the things I’ve found in Tallahassee over 37 years — there are no secrets. This is a small town. You have a secret; it ain’t a secret. You may have told one person — you’ve told everybody.”
“What goes on in Tallahassee: it’s three blocks square. You’ve got 5,000 people who are involved, in the third largest state in America, living in a three-block square, 24/7. Nothing goes unnoticed,” Hightower said.
Last updated on January 30, 2017