John Morgan charms Tampa Tiger Bay Club with talk of Jesus, getting drunk

Morgan, 61, says he is months away from deciding whether to run for governor.

Published April 21 2017
Updated April 22 2017

TAMPA — In nearly 90 minutes before an overflow crowd Friday, John Morgan politicized Jesus, sprinkled in assorted profanities, suggested pharmaceutical companies "are in the business of premeditated murder" and talked unapologetically about getting drunk.

By the end of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club luncheon, even the few Republicans in the room confessed to being thoroughly charmed by the wealthy, personal injury lawyer with the Kentucky drawl mulling a run for governor.

"He's engaging, he's personable, he seems genuine, and really does seem to care," said Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, which helps victims of domestic abuse.

"He was great," said Republican attorney Adam Bantner. "He's entertaining, he's got the charisma, he's got the gravitas, and he had some ideas that I think Republicans could get behind."

Morgan, 61, says he is months away from deciding whether to run for governor, but many of the audience members who turned out to see him — interest was so great that the Tiger Bay Club used the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center to accommodate more people — said he seemed more likely to run than not.

"It's probably more likely than unlikely as I sit here today," Morgan said. "Some days I wake up and I'm at 100 percent. But some days, like in the winter and I wake up in St. Barts, it's less."

From years of TV ads for his Morgan & Morgan law firm, Morgan has the name recognition and also the vast wealth that he can wait months to make up his mind. Four credible Democratic candidates already are actively campaigning to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who must step down after 2018: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Orlando businessman Chris King, and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

If he runs, Morgan said Friday, he would serve just one four-year term. His agenda? First and foremost, raising the minimum wage. So many Americans are angry and scared today, he said, because they keep falling behind no matter how hard they work. Living on Florida's current minimum wage, $8.10, is impossible, and as governor he would immediately set about putting a constitutional amendment to raise that wage on the ballot for 2020.

"I don't know if it's $15, I don't know if it's $14 or $13. I don't know if it starts in '26 or '25 or '24," he said. "But I know that's the answer. ... People make more money, they spend more money, businesses do better. ... That's really the reason first, second, third, that drives me when I think about this quest."

Other priorities: decriminalizing drugs, and turning back Florida's growing emphasis on charter schools.

Addiction should not be treated like a crime.

"I would not put people in jail or prison for buying heroin. I'd put people in jail for selling heroin," Morgan said, suggesting that America's war on drugs should be waged against the pharmaceutical industry. "These companies are in the business of premeditated murder. The tobacco industry is in the business of premeditated murder. ... Fifty thousand people die a year from legal opioids.

He called charter schools a failure that amount to a war on public school teachers.

"What it is is a few rich people get to own real estate, and get to charge rent, get to make all sorts of fees and drain money from our public schools," he said.

Republican political consultant Mark Proctor was among those at the luncheon convinced Morgan wants to run — and would be the toughest Democrat to beat.

"If he gets in, he'll win the Democratic primary. There's no doubt in my mind," Proctor said. "However, I'm not sure Florida is going to be ready for a higher minimum wage, legalizing drugs ... restoration of felon rights. There are not issues for a conservative state like Florida."

A self-described "compassionate capitalist" whose business interests include law firms in 42 cities, insurance, banking, gambling, amusement, hotels, and real estate, Morgan was a top fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump sold voters "a bill of goods," he said, and as governor he would work to expand health coverage, unlike current Republican leaders.

"There are all these people who say, 'Well, what would Jesus do?' I know what he would do. You know what he would do. Jesus wasn't just Jesus. He was a liberal Democrat," Morgan joked.

Someone asked Morgan how a candidacy might survive things like a viral video that emerged in 2014 showing Morgan, drink in hand and seemingly intoxicated, hurling profanities at the Boots N Buckles saloon in Lakeland while campaigning to legalize medical marijuana. Morgan said he had two drinks and was not intoxicated in that video.

"I guess if I use the f-word, f-bombs, people think I'm drunk. If that's the case, I'm drunk every damn day of my life," he said to laughter. "When I got on my bus to go back to my beach house, I got drunk. And when I got to my beach house, I got drunker. But I was not drunk at Boots N Buckles."

Morgan was charged with driving under the influence in 1993 and 1997, and says he uses a limo when he drinks today.

If he runs, he said, "Let all the perfect people vote for somebody else, and let all the sinners and imperfect people vote for me. I'll win in a landslide."

He also said he had been advised that he would have to lose a lot of weight if he ran and that a doctor told him his ideal weight would be 158 pounds.

"My head alone weighs 50 pounds," he scoffed, assuring the crowd that he will not be following the Jeb Bush weight loss model if he runs. He barely recognized the former governor when he saw a picture of Bush announcing his 2016 presidential campaign.

"He was so skinny. I actually thought it was Rick Scott with a toupé."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.