“Hold on one second,” John Morgan interrupted, seconds into our interview. “I’ve got a big deal goin’ right now. Biggest deal of my life. Hold on.”
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That is John B. Morgan, Esquire, perhaps most recognized as the baby-faced visage and voice of the longest running and most ubiquitous advertising campaign throughout Florida, “I’m John Morgan. For the people.” Although inching toward retirement age, he’s still keeping a pace that few ever achieve in their younger, most productive years.
John once told me the self-actualized caveat he gave to Ultima Morgan, his wife of 34 years — and the other Morgan in Morgan & Morgan — before they were wed:
“My life is a roller coaster. It is always spinning. People get on for a ride, then they get back off. But I am always moving. You can get on and off as you please, but this is who I am and I’m not going to be someone different.”
Three decades and four kids later, they are still together and John is still on the ride, still entirely on his own terms. But he’s not the same man as he was when he got married in 1982, or even a couple of years ago. He’s turned 60, become a grandfather and his youngest son, Dan, became the last of his three boys to become a lawyer and join the family firm. (“I’m a senior! I was at Chick-fil-A and the cashier pulled me to the front of the line and gave me a free small iced tea because of my advanced age!”) His priorities have shifted.
“It’s a transition,” he says with a clarity of purpose, “moving from success to significance.”
That’s not to say that Morgan — the cherubic-looking chairman of the eponymous Morgan & Morgan law firm (which recently opened offices in Philadelphia, the ninth state in which the nearly 350-lawyer firm has offices), owner of the Wonderworks chain of amusement parks (featuring John’s favorite attraction, the Upside Down House), Marriott franchisee, perpetual thorn in the side of just-ousted Democratic Party Chairman and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, general of a self-proclaimed medical marijuana “Army of Angels,” and serial entrepreneur and investor — is contemplating anything resembling retirement. He’s just taking an evaluative step back.
“I’m much closer to death than … not. And I just gotta make sure I got all my shit straight. I spend a lot more time thinking about the life after than I did before.”
But while age has brought out Morgan’s reflective side, he’s also at the point where he knows what he wants from this life, and has the means to live each day almost exactly as he chooses. For Morgan, that means, primarily, his three C’s — climate, clan and comfort. The trio go hand-in-hand and, on any given day, he has them all in spades.
On a hot, Central Florida day in May of this year, John Morgan stood in the center of a circle of people, holding court inside a hospitality suite at Orlando’s Gaylord Palms Hotel and Convention Center. He had just delivered a nearly hourlong speech to more than 1,000 attendees of the Marijuana Business Daily Conference and Expo, finishing to a standing ovation. (“Getting 1,000 potheads on their feet is a major accomplishment,” remarked one of the conventioneers.)
The intimate audience in the suite listened, rapt, hanging on his every word.
I walked in on this scene as it was already underway, expecting John to be regaling the crowd with war stories from the medical marijuana campaign, or answering questions about the business side of the marijuana reform issue. He was doing neither.
“I am on a constant mission,” he told them, “to stay between 60 and 80 degrees. Can’t be too hot; can’t be too cold. I’m just chasing that perfect temperature.”
This hunt for thermometric perfection — the “climate” part of “climate, clan and comfort” — begins with his home base of Lake Mary, just east of Orlando off Interstate 4. Further east, in the sleepy beach town of Ponce Inlet, is “San Clemente,” the waterfront property John named after Richard Nixon’s Western White House. When the sweltering Central Florida summers knock him out of that 60 to 80-degree comfort zone, John heads to his lake house in New Hampshire, just outside of laconic Laconia. (“New Hampshire is beautiful for, like, six weeks between July and September. After Labor Day, it’s over. Winter. Get the fuck out.”)
The most recent addition is his condo in Maui, Hawaii where, for the last two years, Morgan and his family are spending more and more time each winter. And just in the last few months, Morgan has signed a contract on a condo in Laguna Beach, California, but is vacillating on the decision and may instead buy a single-family home in nearby Dana Point.
Despite Morgan’s Ahab-like hunt for the elusive 20-degree, mild-weather sweet spot, the Morgans tried renting a house in Aspen this winter. But, according to John, “we’re not cold weather people. Five days, goodbye. And I don’t ski.”
“My idea of cold weather was to be dropped off at the bar and the restaurants and then be brought back the house. I was not on the gondola.”
Wherever he goes, no matter the climate, John is surrounded by his clan at all times.
“John is the ultimate family man,” was how former Florida First Lady Carole Crist, summed up Morgan.
Son Matt Morgan owns a condo next to his parents’ home in Ponce Inlet; John Morgan also bought the lot next door and is in the process of building a second home for family and friends. Mike Morgan, the oldest Morgan progeny, owns a home directly across the street from his dad in Lake Mary. John is holding out hope that his daughter, Kate, will do the same. In the meantime, the offices of her structured settlement company, Monarch, are on the 15th floor of the building that houses the Morgan & Morgan law firm on the 16th, where both her parents and all three of her brothers work as attorneys.
In addition to his kids, John’s four younger siblings and their spouses and kids are usually represented, in whole or in part, wherever he goes. Oh, and so are his two German shepherds, Emma and Molly, though not on the Hawaii trips. “My jet doesn’t fly that far,” he explained, and he doesn’t like to crate them.
The jet, a Citation XLS that seats eight, is emblematic of the last side of John Morgan’s axis of leisure, “comfort.”
“My plane and my houses are the two biggest luxuries I give myself,” he declares. Indeed, to the extent possible for a guy with a jet, and four, going-on-five, homes, John is not what you’d call flashy. He drives a nice, relatively new Mercedes sedan, but he drove the same Mercedes sedan for a decade before that, and hated giving it up for the newer model (which he still hasn’t figured out all the buttons on).
He’s dined at the White House with President Barack Obama and at Napa’s The French Laundry, but most days he eats a home-cooked meal prepared by Ultima. Much more common dining-out spots for John include: Carrabba’s, where he knows the menu so well I’ve witnessed him negotiate with waiters to order off the dinner menu at lunch; Outback Steakhouse, where he (and I can attest to this personally) got “fucked up” before giving a now-infamous speech at Lakeland’s Boots and Buckle country-western bar; or Jimmy John’s subs, where I’ve bumped into him getting lunch before a scheduled meeting in his office across the street.
Anyone questioning if “For the People” is just a cynical marketing tactic should witness his knowledge and command of the menu at virtually any midrange American chain restaurant.
Perhaps it’s that same sense of comfort that draws him to familiar menus wherever he goes. The notion of comfort in John’s life is paramount. He gave and raised over a million dollars for Obama’s re-election and could have been considered for an ambassadorship like other big donors. But soon after the 2012 elections, John called his friend, and the campaign manager of Obama’s re-election effort, Jim Messina, to tell him he didn’t even want to be put on any lists for consideration or preliminary vetting.
Charlie Crist said Morgan’s reason for doing so was that he didn’t want to be separated from his family. That’s certainly true, but he’s surrounded by family as he travels all over the world now, as he would be at an embassy. John has told me on numerous occasions that one of the major factors was comfort.
“You go to Europe and the beds are so small and uncomfortable. Every bed in every one of my houses are the same pillow-top beds they put in the rooms at the Ritz. Every bed has tons of pillows, and they’re all goose down.”
He also offered up a second beef.
“Outside of the U.S., no one has ice! I need a big glass of water with crushed ice by my bedstand every night.”
In August 2014, John and I were invited to a cocktail party at the home of Holocaust survivor and No. 16 on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest people in the world, George Soros. Likewise, John was invited to a dinner afterward with Soros, Napster founder Sean Parker, and the actor Michael Douglas, among others (I had dinner alone at Mr. Chow). Later, John told me that while the Oriental rug covering the living room of Soros’ Upper East Side apartment was likely worth more than John’s Lake Mary mansion, he would never want to live there. The reason? Comfort, generally, but specifically the lack of ottomans on which to rest one’s feet.
“I have ottomans everywhere in my homes,” he says. “You look in every corner of the house, and you’ll find little pockets of comfort.”
At the outset of his seventh decade, John has accomplished more — personally, professionally, politically, philanthropically — in his 60 years than most men could if given 600 years. He’s spending his remaining time on earth and the money he’s earned, being surrounded by people he loves, and cloistered in down and ottomans.
But in his last act, he’s also borderline obsessed with that transition from “success to significance.”
John is a very religious guy, and a very spiritual one, even if he isn’t always what one would call “devout.” His faith is central to how he views his golden years.
“I figure the likelihood there’s a God is better than that there isn’t,” he philosophizes. “And I’m gonna live my life like there is a God and a pearly gates and I’m gonna have to sit in judgment one day.”
On those lines, the “significance” John Morgan seeks is through acts of good will and charity, not business. Even though he doesn’t believe it’s going to count with the Guy Upstairs, John talks about his law business and his charitable acts of significance in much the same terms. “Dignity” is what he offers by representing clients on contingency, who otherwise couldn’t afford a lawyer and therefore access to the civil justice system. And “dignity,” is his primary parameter for charitable investment.
“Food. Water. Shelter. Medicine. Those are the pillars of being able to live a life with basic human dignity,” he declares. “That’s where I try and make my marks.”
He considers the over $7 million he’s put into the medical marijuana campaign an act of compassion and dignity. Ditto for the millions he’s invested in the Orlando food bank bearing his and his wife’s name, or leading an effort to open a shelter for battered women, children — and their dogs. “When these women try and leave abusive relationships, one of the things that always happens is the abuser uses the dog to keep them from leaving. ‘I’ll kill the dog if you don’t come home.’”
Every night, because it calms him before bed, and to keep racking up those points before meeting St. Peter, John prays. And he’s been doing it more lately.
After taking his daughter, Kate, to see Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school, she gave him some advice. “She goes, ‘you need to start thinking more about what’s right than what’s wrong, and spend more time with prayers of gratitude.’ And I’ve done that. And it’s been very helpful.”
And like the Irish Catholic boy he is at heart, John Morgan has a strong sense of fatalism, that what he has was given to him, not earned.
“I’m blessed and I’m lucky. Certain things worked out the right way and I won the genetic lottery being born the way I was,” he concludes. “People are born either lions or sloths. I was born a lion. I just had to fucking work. You don’t pat a lion on the back and say, ‘hey, you’re a badass lion.’”
Ben Pollara is the Marijuana Kid to John Morgan’s Butch Cassidy. He’s also a Democratic political consultant, and campaign manager for United for Care, the medical marijuana campaign chaired by John Morgan supporting Amendment 2 in the Nov. 8 election. He has known John since 2004, and worked closely with him on United for Care since early 2013. Much of the material for this feature comes from the time he has spent with John over the years, hours of profane phone calls, and thousands of emails exchanged between them. John has commissioned Ben to edit a posthumous collection of his more quotable lines, to be titled, “Shit John Morgan Says …”
Pollara is a founding partner of LSN Partners, a Miami Beach-based government and public affairs firm and is a self-described “hyperpartisan” Democrat.