Why I hope John Morgan runs for Florida governor, but doubt he will

In this photo from October 2014, John Morgan rides in United for Care bus on his way to debate Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd over Amendment 2, the medical marijuana measure. (CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times)
In this photo from October 2014, John Morgan rides in United for Care bus on his way to debate Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd over Amendment 2, the medical marijuana measure. (CHERIE DIEZ | Times)
Published April 19, 2017

TAMPA — You don't have to like Donald Trump to acknowledge that the wealthy, unscripted and impulsive president has been a remarkable force in American politics. He defied the doubters, upended the establishment and has energized citizens and journalists alike.

John Morgan, the oft-advertised "For the People" personal injury lawyer, has a similarly common touch, blunt style and populist instincts. That's why so many see Morgan as a potentially game-changing candidate for Florida governor in 2018. He's scheduled to speak to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club on Friday.

Like Trump, the self-described "compassionate capitalist" Morgan defies easy ideological labeling. The Orlando-area Democrat, 61, would spend tens of millions of his own dollars to win. He's politically incorrect, too, but funnier than Trump.

Where other politicians have skeletons in the closet, Morgan once quipped, "I've got live bodies in the basement."

Alas, as much fun as he would be to cover, my hunch is Morgan ultimately takes a pass.


Because he seems to be enjoying himself enormously these days, feeding his entrepreneurial passion on little-noticed ventures that could revolutionize the legal industry.

Because running for governor of America's biggest swing state would draw endless nasty attacks that could seriously damage the Morgan family brand as he hands off the Morgan & Morgan firm to his sons.

Because accomplishing top Morgan priorities, especially raising the minimum wage, would be easier through a ballot initiative much like his medical marijuana initiative than running and serving as governor.

And because Morgan has a driving desire to be liked and sounds like he truly loathes the idea of subjecting himself to a campaign.

"My son Matt said to me, 'All politicians are jokes. Why would you want to be a joke?' I really think about that," Morgan acknowledged by phone Monday, while maintaining that he remains sincerely intrigued by the prospect of running.

"You will know I am not running when I am not giving speeches on a Friday and ruining that whole day," Morgan said.

Most politicians launch "listening tours" before kicking off a big campaign. Morgan's Tiger Bay appearance in Tampa is part of what he calls his "talking tour."

Four other candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination — Orlando businessman Chris King, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — are scheduled to address Democrats in Manatee County on Friday evening, but Morgan sees no reason to stick around Tampa Bay to join that cattle call.

When you're worth more than $100 million (as Morgan and Levine are) and TV commercials ensure millions of Floridians know your name, there's no need (and zero desire) to start campaigning 71 weeks before the election.

"They have to do it, because what else are they going to do? I don't think you need that to win," Morgan said.

You may assume from all those billboards and TV ads that he's another ambulance-chasing slip-and-fall lawyer. Correct. But he also is one of the most successful and creative entrepreneurs in Florida and has earned a national reputation as a visionary business leader in his profession.

The self-made son of poor, alcoholic parents in Kentucky runs one of the world's largest personal injury law firms, but also helps lead assorted hotels, a bank, a casino in Biloxi, Miss., with his pal Jimmy Buffett, a large advertising firm, the WonderWorks chain of interactive attractions and a crime museum in Washington, D.C. He is in the process of starting an insurance firm.

Lately, Morgan has been consumed with two big projects: a Brooklyn-based company that develops software for law firms and creating Think of it as Google for class-action lawsuits. The website aggregates cases from across the country and steers them to specializing law firms, which in turn pay Morgan a referral fee.

Morgan, who raises money for Democrats and Republicans alike, has a compelling personal story and charisma to spare, and at least the potential to appeal to voters normally turned off by conventional politicians. If he runs, he says, he would want to serve only one term and probably focus on passing a constitutional amendment in 2020 raising Florida's minimum wage to $15.

"The reason people are mad is they're not making enough money. They're basically working in poverty," Morgan said. "They work 40 hours a week, they put on uniforms, they do everything they're supposed to do and they come home and they're broke. The minimum wage is the secret."

Democrats already have a strong field of contenders without Morgan, and he would be no shoo-in for the nomination.

"Every one of them I know and like a lot," he said of Graham, Gillum, Levine and King. And he even had nice things to say about potential Republican candidates. "Quite frankly I know and like (Richard) Corcoran a lot. I don't know Adam Putnam that well, but I've never heard a bad word about him."

A Trump-like populist on the Democratic side might not be so appealing if President Trump remains as unpopular in 2018 as he is today.

Morgan has a lot of thinking to do about how he might make the biggest difference. He also has the luxury of time that prospective rivals don't.

"I am now clearly in the deep second half of my life," he said. "Going from success to significance is very important to me. Getting into heaven someday is a constant thought."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.