In June, perennial Jacksonville powerbroker Mike Hightower retired from his position as top lobbyist for local utility JEA.
October saw Hightower return to Jacksonville, to be honored “on the occasion of his latest retirement” by the Jacksonville City Council.
Flanked by familiar faces from a somewhat bygone era (including Matt Schellenberg, who has emerged as an open intra-party critic of Mayor Lenny Curry since leaving the Council earlier this year), Hightower was extolled by Council member after Council member.
Democrat Reggie Gaffney noted that, while he was a Republican, he nominated Hightower as Duval GOP chair … twice.
“Whenever I got in a jam,” Gaffney said, “I could always call on Mike.”
“He’s all about Jacksonville,” added Republican Matt Carlucci.
Republican Randy DeFoor, who, like Schellenberg, is on the outs with the Mayor, lauded Hightower’s “honesty and integrity.”
And in a nod to history, Democrat Tommy Hazouri recalled working on Jimmy Carter‘s 1976 Presidential campaign with Hightower, whose party switch came some years later.
For his part, Hightower hearkened back to an era, which seems theoretical at this point, in which people competed hard but ended the day as friends.
Hightower, who has raised more than $100 million for political candidates over the years, advised against “corrosive behaviors” that undermine local democracy.
We caught up with Hightower after the proclamation ceremony, where he elaborated (without naming names) on some issues he clearly sees as key.
“We sort of went at it, but the next morning we came back together. It used to be about winning, now it’s about annihilating the opposition,” Hightower said.
“It’s OK to be competitive. I’m convinced that a lot of people running for office weren’t so good at sports … or maybe they were,” Hightower added.
“Put on your boxing gloves,” he continued. “But you don’t have to be disrespectful.”
Some contend that Jacksonville’s discourse is at a nadir, a food fight between interest groups with the Mayor and allied interests running roughshod over competing interests.
However, Hightower would not name names regarding who’s responsible for the current discourse.
“I think what people say about you when they’re not in front of you is more important than what they say to you,” he said, noting that people lauded him as a “nice person … whose word is [his] bond.”
“Don’t forget who you are,” Hightower said. “Be nice to those people going up the ladder, because you’re going to see them coming down.”
Hightower was not terribly specific about JEA, which has just received 16 bids from around the world to privatize its services.
“I can’t address that. When I retired four months ago, I retired. And I learned when you retire, you’ve got to step back,” Hightower said.
“I don’t know everything that’s going on,” Hightower added, “and it would be presumptuous … I only get what I pick up. It’s very complex. I haven’t kept up with the intricacies of that.”
“Senior staff and the board have tough decisions. All I’ve asked is to be transparent,” Hightower added.
Hightower, though retiring from JEA, is not retiring from the political scene, he said. He will be active in the re-election campaigns of those on the Council and in the 2023 Mayoral race, he said.