On November 8, it seemed like John Morgan got everything he had ever wanted out of politics.His amendment to make medical marijuana legal in Florida, an effort he had championed for the previous four years, had passed with more than 70 percent of the vote, the kind of winning margin that thoroughbred horse owners like Morgan daydream of.
When Morgan began this quest in 2014, the upper echelon of the Democratic Party donor class informed him it would be impossible to legalize medical marijuana in Florida; this isn’t Colorado, he was told. Morgan responded to that pessimism by pumping nearly $9 million of his own money since 2014 into his effort, known as Amendment 2. He barnstormed the state by bus and, in one celebrated appearance, delivered a profanity-peppered speech with a drink in his hand at a Lakeland saloon called Boots N Buckles that helped to set the medical marijuana issue on fire in the Sunshine State.
In the end, Amendment 2 beat the 60-percent threshold by 11 points, recording two million more votes than Donald Trump got in a state that he won. In a post-election press conference on the morning after, when political outsiders were suddenly in vogue, the eminently quotable Morgan, a longtime critic of business-as-usual in Tallahassee, did little to tamp down speculation that he might parlay his victory into a bid for the governor’s mansion.
“If I were king of Florida, I would walk through the prisons and release everyone in there for possession alone,” Morgan said at the press conference. “Everyone.”
But after Morgan took his Daytona-style victory lap, he did what he does every year—he went on a long vacation to the Caribbean, the beaches of north Florida and Keeneland Racecourse in Kentucky. When he returned home in early 2017, as the legislature was in full swing, he discovered that what he called “my amendment” was being roughed up by conservative Tallahassee lawmakers who had little interest in seeing legalized marijuana—medicinal or otherwise—get a toehold in their state. It was in their hands, not voters, to decide how the amendment would be implemented, and it was clear that they were interpreting the language of Morgan’s amendment as narrowly as possible.
“Hey, we’re going to deny you this,” an indignant Morgan said, mimicking his political adversaries. “You won, but you’re not going to win.”
Ultimately it would take a special session for the legislature to pass a bill, but the final product infuriated Morgan because it denied people the right to smoke the marijuana as part of their treatment. Several days after the law went into effect on July 1, Morgan promptly filed a lawsuit, claiming that kindergarteners could understand the language of his amendment better than Republican leaders in Tallahassee.
All the name-calling seems only to have revived the speculation that Morgan could run for governor in 2018. This could be wishful thinking on the part of reporters who relish the salty accessibility of a cigar-chomping, bourbon-loving personal injury lawyer who is the very opposite of the robot-like media-hating conservative who has occupied the governor’s mansion for the past six and a half years. It is a possibility that Morgan won’t rule out, mostly because he doesn’t need to make a decision yet. Besides, he may not even need to. Morgan is having a political impact on the state that is greater than any non-politician in Florida. And the speculation about his potential run in 2018 proceeds whether he encourages it or not.
“I think he’d be hard to beat, honestly, Republican or Democrat,” Stephani Scruggs Bowen, former director of Florida field operations for the Trump campaign, told POLITICO Magazine. “Everybody knows his face and his voice. And plus, he comes across as a guy who everybody, regardless of party lines, would like to sit down and have a beer with. Because he’d be a hell of a lot of fun. And that makes him hard to beat, on any issue. And the fact that he’s also plain spoken, has a tendency to speak for the little guy, makes him come off as a lot like Trump.” As a Trump supporter, she meant that as a compliment.
Morgan might well be the most formidable Florida politician not in public office. His wealth, which he once described as somewhere “north of Mitt Romney,” combined with off-the-charts name recognition from more than a decade of saturation advertising for his national law firm, and a strong Twitter game, gives his array of populist pet causes—restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons; criminal justice reform; and full legalization of marijuana—an instant credibility. Whether he runs for governor or not, he’s already gearing up for his next big fight: a constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage. Morgan doesn’t know what the dollar figure will be but, but he’s got a date in mind: 2020.
“That’s the reason for the anger that we were seeing in the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump supporters,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine. “That the harder they worked, the further they fell behind. And it’s not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s just a people issue.”
John Morgan grew up in a poor Catholic family in Kentucky; his family moved to Florida when he was a teenager. While at law school at the University of Florida, his younger brother injured himself in a diving accident while working as a lifeguard at Disney World, paralyzing him for life. Morgan still considers that day “the single worst day” of his life.
In 1988, at 32 years old, John Morgan co-founded Morgan Colling and Gilbert in Orlando. In the 1990s, when advertising by lawyers was still considered unseemly, Morgan defined legal branding with a relentless advertising campaign (“For the people”) that ultimately would stretch up the Eastern seaboard to Boston and across the South to New Orleans. His firm now has offices in 40 cities in 11 states, a staff of 350 attorneys and 2,300 paralegals and supporting staff. and annual gross revenue of $1 billion, according to Morgan. In 2005, the other founding partners parted ways, and John Morgan renamed the firm Morgan & Morgan (the second Morgan is his wife, Ultima; they met at law school in Gainesville). A self-described “deal junkie,” Morgan reinvested his law firm’s successes into myriad other business ventures, including a software company, real estate projects, apartments, assisted living facilities, Marriott hotels, three thoroughbred race horses, and a chain of tourist attractions called WonderWorks, which are designed to look like upside-down houses. The list goes on. “I am an entrepreneur on steroids,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine.
Since 2005, John Morgan has made a name for himself as a high-dollar Democratic donor. In early October 2006, just as Democrats were poised to take the U.S. Senate in what President George W. Bush would later call “a thumpin’ ” Morgan gave the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $26,700. Every year since, he’s given at least $15,000 a year to various Democratic Congressional campaigns, and not just in Florida and D.C. He has given thousands of dollars to campaigns in Nevada, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Minnesota and Wisconsin. At the state level, Morgan gives to candidates in both parties: “I am ecumenical,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine, regarding his donations to Republicans.
Then in 2013, Morgan decided he wanted to get out front on an issue that was close to his family but stymied by Florida politics. Early that year, Morgan had lunch at the Dexter’s in Lake Mary with Ben Pollara, a Democratic fundraiser and campaign consultant who knew the story about the diving accident that left Morgan’s brother paralyzed, and that he smoked marijuana to relieve his muscle spasms. Over lunch, Pollara convinced Morgan that Florida could legalize medical marijuana by constitutional amendment even though an amendment required 60 percent of the vote. Morgan took it to heart and dove into it headlong for 2014, spending more than $4 million of his own money.
“The first go-around, even when I took the lead on it, I expected to turn around and have a bunch of progressives following me with some money,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine. “It’s almost like I went out of the front gate with my trombone expecting to see a full band marching behind me, and I turned around and there was a monkey with a cymbal and that was it. So, I had to start putting in a lot more money than I had ever signed up for that day at Dexter’s, but I’m competitive. I believed in it.”
His amendment would have likely won the necessary 60 percent in 2014 if the Florida legislature hadn’t passed a very limited low-THC medical marijuana bill that session, which effectively took the some of the urgency out of Morgan’s effort. On election day that November, Morgan’s initiative fell just short with 58 percent of the vote. Gov. Rick Scott won re-election that year with 48 percent, 10 points behind marijuana.
Morgan took some consolation from the loss. “It showed a lot of people that in Florida, which I believe is the bellwether state of America, that it was possible, that more than a majority believed it in,” Morgan told POLITICO. Throughout the 2014 campaign, Morgan had told Pollara that “this is it, this is our one shot.” Then that August, Morgan gave his now-famous Boots N Buckles speech laced with salty talk, which resulted in headlines like, “Attorney John Morgan makes obscenity-laced campaign stop.”
As soon as it was clear they had lost on election night, Morgan and Ben Pollara sent an email to supporters declaring their intention to try again in 2016. For the second round, Morgan liked his chances even better. “I knew there would be a presidential election where turnout in Broward and Dade [counties] would be historic,” he told me, and he was right.
There’s a long history in Florida of constitutional amendments passing at the ballot box only to run into resistance from the legislators who never wanted to deal with the issue in the first place. But the legislature has to pass the so-called enabling law that implements whatever voters have demanded, and this gives them a great deal of leeway to sandbag, undermine, or just plain ignore the will of 60 percent of the state’s voters. It has happened on issues ranging from high-speed rail to renewable energy to redistricting. And in each case, the Republican-controlled legislature has implemented those amendments in ways to render them practically worthless. Morgan’s marijuana amendment, as wildly popular as it was, was no different.
“This is not new to Florida,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine, referring to the legislature’s failure to implement amendments fairly. “It’s why the politicians in this state are despised. Nobody admires them.”
In the case of Morgan’s medical marijuana amendment, the Republican bills in both chambers began as non-smoking bills, designed to deny advocates like Morgan the sort of medical marijuana dispensaries that are now commonplace in western states. The House bill was even more tedious, with a 90-day waiting period for patients, restrictions on doctors, and a licensing structure that was intended to create a cartel of fewer than 10 licenses for a statewide industry valued at over $1 billion. As a means of comparison, Colorado, with a quarter of the population of Florida, has 776 licensed cultivators for its medical marijuana market alone (and another 670 licenses for recreational).
As the legislative session drew to a close in early May, the House and Senate had agreed to implement a no-smoking version of the law without the 90-day wait, but at the last minute, negotiations collapsed over the number of licenses, leaving the marijuana bill among Tallahassee’s unfinished business along with the state’s $83 billion budget. In the days after the failure of the regular session, Morgan raged on Twitter and in the press, bashing friend and foe alike for failing to get even the most basic job done. He took particular aim at Ben Pollara, who had been with him since the beginning. In Morgan’s mind, it had been Pollara’s job to get a bill out of the legislature. On Twitter, Morgan referred to Pollara using a Fredo Corleone GIF, and in another tweet, suggested that Pollara had “#SoldHisSoulForABowlOfRIce.” Pollara was shaken by it. “It was among the most difficult 72 hours of my life, for sure,” Pollara told POLITICO Magazine.
On May 9, Morgan posted a nine-minute video to his Twitter account, urging legislative leaders in Tallahassee to call a special session to finish their work on implementing medical marijuana. It took lawmakers nearly a month to put marijuana on the special session docket.
“I brow-beat them into coming back and finishing the job,” Morgan said, taking credit for convening a special session, even though it was a certainty because the budget had to be settled as well. “I don’t think those politicians could have survived if they had left this alone. I mean, Rick Scott is running for U.S. Senate. He had incentive to come back. [Speaker of the House] Richard Corcoran is running for governor. He had an incentive to come back… And I raised total hell about it until they did come back.”
In June, when the GOP-led House and Senate finally reconvened for extra time in Tallahassee, they quickly passed a no-smoking marijuana implementation bill. GOP leaders based the no-smoking bill on an interpretation of Morgan’s amendment that was as unforgiving as possible.
Back in 2014, when Morgan debated sheriffs over this issue, the sheriffs told Morgan they were concerned that people would smoke marijuana in public. So, in the 2016 amendment, Morgan included language that said smoking in public would not be allowed, in order to placate the sheriffs. But since he didn’t explicitly state in the bill that smoking in private would be allowed, the Republican leadership interpreted it to mean that smoking would not be allowed at all. House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues made the point repeatedly that smoking of marijuana was not an acceptable medical use.
“Ray Rodrigues is the type of politician that gives all politicians a bad name,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine. “I mean, think about it: I’m saying you can’t smoke in public, which means you can smoke at home. ‘You can’t smoke in public’ does not mean you can’t smoke.”
On Twitter, Morgan banged the drum with a #NoSmokeIsAJoke hashtag, promising legal action against the law as written. The no-smoke law took effect on July 1, and immediately after the July 4th holiday, Morgan did what he had threatened to do for weeks—he flew to Tallahassee and filed suit against the State of Florida for bad-faith implementation of his amendment. This is not what Morgan had expected he’d be doing some nine months after his landslide win, but he’s not unhappy about it.
“The publicity to me, before the whole thing is over, I will be above the fold [of newspapers] 50 times in Florida, I’ll be below the fold probably another 50 times… It could mean to me tens of millions of dollars in free publicity for doing what’s right,” he told POLITICO Magazine.
The question is: Publicity for what?
Marijuana, as a political issue, has long been a step-child in Democratic Party politics, with most Boomer-era Democratic candidates still too chastened by the Willie Horton ads run against Michael Dukakis in 1988 to back any issue that Republicans could use to label them as “soft on crime.” But John Morgan isn’t shy about it in the least. No major party candidate for statewide office, maybe anywhere in America, has launched a credible campaign built around advocacy for marijuana law reform, but no candidate is quite like John Morgan.
“Wherever I go, the grocery store, gas station, drug store—it’s amazing the people who come up to me and thank me. Over and over and over again, when I’m out in public,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine, regarding the feedback he’s received for his advocacy for medical marijuana.
The speculation that John Morgan might turn that wellspring of good vibrations into run for governor of Florida in 2018 began immediately after his win. Ben Pollara launched a “Draft Morgan” website called ForTheGovernor.com to sign a petition to draft Morgan into the 2018 gubernatorial race. In April, Charlie Crist joined the pro-Morgan chorus. Crist, the former governor of Florida, former employee of Morgan & Morgan, and current Congressman from St. Petersburg, gave his thoughts on Morgan’s potential candidacy to CBS Miami’s “Facing South Florida” host Jim DeFede, by saying “He could be a great governor… I told him, I said, ‘If you run, I think you’ll win.’ And I believe that…”
Nine months after his November victory, John Morgan is no closer to officially declaring his candidacy for governor. But he and Pollara have patched things up and launched a new campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to raise Florida’s minimum wage. They have already engaged the signature gatherers.
“I hope to have that well on its way before the end of summer, for 2020,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine. “The lesson I learned from this last time is that the chance for success is much greater in a general election than off-year.”
The minimum wage issue is an interesting one for Morgan, a man who hobnobs with Florida’s ultra-rich and flies where he pleases in his private jet. But Morgan & Morgan has also been generous to a food bank in Orlando that now bears the firm’s name. “It’s a 100,000-square-foot food bank that feeds 250,000 people a month,” Morgan told POLITICO. “It’s unconscionable that people go out and do the right thing and get the wrong results, which is begging for free food. You leave your grocery store in your uniform to go to the food bank to get free food,” Morgan said. “You can’t afford the food at the store you work in. How demoralizing would that be?”
So what are this guy’s chances, exactly, of remaking Florida politics in his image with a credible run for governor?
“I’m not going to make that decision until next year,” Morgan told me. “I believe, strategically, for me, it’s better to wait almost to the very end because every time I do a radio show — I mean, like today, I did a bunch of radio. But I could do radio shows all day long. I could do television shows all day long. If I was a candidate, all the other candidates would be saying, ‘We need equal time.’ OK, so why would I give up that advantage?”
Name recognition cuts both ways, say some longtime Florida political observers.
“His name ID is not going to be a problem because of his omnipresence on TV’s across the state for many years,” Peter Brown, a pollster for Quinnipiac who lives in Orlando, told POLITICO Magazine by telephone. “The question is favorable vs. unfavorable name ID. Is his name ID an asset or a liability?” For a trial lawyer who shows up on your television whether you want him there or not, it’s a fair question.
Unlike most politicians, John Morgan has been buying TV ads in Florida for his own business for the past 30 years: “Look, I’m buying in most markets, so I know where they all are and how expensive they all are. I think I would go places and do things that most political candidates would never think of doing. They basically all have the same playbook, and their consultants and TV buyers come in and they all buy the same thing and do the same thing, and most of them lose… So I can’t think of a better media consultant in Florida than me,” Morgan told POLITICO Magazine.
Republicans in Florida are taking him seriously, or at least pretending to. While speaking to a women’s group in Fort Myers on the Monday after Morgan filed his lawsuit, Rodrigues called Morgan the “front runner to be the Democratic nominee for governor” and took pleasure in the fact that in Morgan’s Tallahassee press conference, he had “attacked me by name 12 times for being too conservative. Sounds like a great day in the office to me.”
Corcoran, Florida’s speaker of the house and Rodrigues’ boss, was a little more circumspect: “John has been a friend ever since I beat him in a free throw contest. He’s talented. He’s charismatic. And he will win the Democratic primary, if he runs.”
It was almost as if Republicans are goading Morgan into the ring because they think he would be easier to beat than a more traditional Democrat. But by messing with a bull like Morgan, Florida Republicans run the risk of getting the horns. For others watching from the bleachers as the 2018 Florida gubernatorial field takes shape, the time for an outsider populist running as a Democrat could not be better.
“I think Morgan is running for governor to cement his legacy after a successful career,” said Kevin Sweeny, operations director at the Florida Justice Association, the state’s trial lawyers trade group.
“If you look back, I think you have to call him a visionary,” Sweeny told POLITICO Magazine from a pay phone in the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park while on vacation. “Now he’s trying to raise the minimum wage? I’m sure he’s got a plan. Just like he had with marijuana. He has a plan.”
The next certain item on John Morgan’s political agenda is a court date for his lawsuit against the state over whether to allow smoking as part of Florida’s newly enacted medical marijuana program. The state has until August 21 to respond, so Morgan’s day in court will likely happen in September or October. “I feel pretty good about it,” Morgan told me.