He’s the local Republican Party chair, Mayor John Peyton’s campaign manager and a 25-year executive with Blue Cross Blue Shield. He’s tight with Gov. Jeb Bush and he’s visited with Jeb’s brother — President George W. Bush. However, Mike Hightower might be much better known for two things: his incredible civic and community involvement and his daily attire — blue button-down with a white collar and a yellow tie.
“It’s kind of my trademark and I started wearing this nine years ago,” said Hightower, admitting that he actually got the idea from someone else. “I thought it was really cool, so I went out and got it. I wore it and got positive reinforcement. I have 43 ties and 13 shirts.”
Hightower recently sat down with the editorial staff at the Daily Record to talk about local politics and his life.
Question: If someone asked you what you do, what would you tell them?
Answer: I’ve never been asked that question. I work at Blue Cross (he’s a vice president) and I just finished my 25th year. It’s been an extraordinary journey. I am doing what I love and I work for a great company. I serve 9,800 employees and it’s the best job. It’s a privilege and an honor to work for Blue Cross and I am thankful they allow me to do this.
Q: You are involved in practically everything. Are you ever too busy?
A: If you ask my wife, probably. If I make the commitment to work on something, I find a way to make the time. But, I make sure I am not overcommitted.
Q: How do you keep all of your duties/jobs straight?
A: It is all in a Rolodex. Everything is tied in a circle. You just have to connect all of the dots. Every one of those things (the list of jobs/duties) is a part of a team; it is all a team effort.
Q: If the calendar turned back 40 years and for some reason you couldn’t have the career that you’ve had, is there anything else that would have appealed to you?
A: If you had asked me 40 years ago if I thought I would be sitting in this room right now having these people talk to me because of that, I would have said you were smoking your sandals.
I’m a Westside boy — I grew up over there. I was going to be a teacher. I was a teacher. I taught civics, but I was a late bloomer. I spent three-and-a-half years going through community college.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher because Billy Parker was my principal and my role model when I was at Forrest High School. He was a coach — I was not a jock but I got involved in student government and became the mascot for the cheerleaders. I realized that if I was going to change that it wasn’t going to be on the football field. I had to find my own way. I went to college and got involved in books.
Then Uncle Sam said, “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously,’ so they shipped my butt off. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me.
I came back and started teaching and realized that as much as I enjoyed it, there wasn’t any money in it. That was one of my biggest struggles — that which I always thought I wanted to do, there wasn’t any money in teaching. My wife was a teacher. My mother- and father-in-law were teachers and principals. They were happy with their lifestyle, but I realized I wanted to do something different.
I’m here because other people provided me with an opportunity. I’m here because I got involved in politics.
I ran for office in 1974 to be a delegate to the convention. I walked into a room at a hotel in Kansas City. Lloyd Bentsen was running for president in 1974. It was a typical Texas-style cocktail party – 10,000 people in a room big enough for 5,000. It was mass confusion.
There were four doors I could have walked in and the door I walked in, I got pushed into a corner with Jimmy Carter. We ended up spending 45 minutes in that corner because it was so crowded.
He said, “I’m Jimmy Carter. I’m running for president.” I said, “I’m Mike Hightower. I’m the new secretary of the Democratic Party in Duval County.” We sat there and traded cards and he talked about what he was going to do.
I came home and got off the plane and said, “I have met the man I’m going to work for who is running for president.” Everybody said, “Jimmy who?” and as they say, the rest is history. I ran his campaign here and then he appointed me at age 31 to run the Farmers Home Administration. Because of that, I met these people and came back to Blue Cross.
Q: Why do you like politics?
A: Politics is people; I love it. It brings out the best and worst in people. And you can have an impact on something. The beginning and end during that time, there are certain things you can do and not do to help. You need certain talents and skills and I love working in a group of skilled people when you are building a campaign and vision. You have to have a gut to be in politics. Getting the funding, the support and then winning — that is a neat opportunity.
Q: You have talked about Mayor Peyton’s possible future, what do you think the future has in store for you?
A: I don’t see myself retired from Blue Cross anytime soon. It has been a privilege working for that company and they have allowed me and encouraged me to do what I do. I am going to continue to work with all of those teams on that paper as long as I can.
Q: Do you ever stop lobbying?
A: I have to be careful about that. Sometimes when we are out, my wife will say, “You’re on and I don’t like that” and I am very conscious of that. There’s a lot to dislike about politics because people seem to come across as plastic. I am extremely mindful and sensitive to that. If you’re not, you can come across as superficial and if you do, you are entitled to the whack you get. There is no such thing as a self-made man. When you are born, all you have is your name and a set of values. You are given opportunities to meet people and make of it what you will.
Q: Why is there no conflict being Republican Party chairman and Peyton’s campaign manager?
A: There isn’t a conflict until there’s a qualified Republican opponent and qualifying isn’t until February. Up to now and until then, he (Peyton) is the titular head of the party and I support him 150 percent.
Q: Is Peyton getting good advice? Is he surrounded by the right people?
A: Everybody is a Monday morning quarterback. If it (being mayor) was easy, everybody would be doing it. There is no school for being mayor and he won against the odds. Not everyone is equipped to adjust from the private sector to the public sector. That’s what makes this process unique. He has never said, “The staff hasn’t served me.” He has always taken the blame for the things that have gone wrong.
Q: What is Peyton doing right?
A: Economic development. When he ran he said he was going to be a tarmac mayor. He met with the Chamber before he was sworn in. He is a full partner with the Chamber, the business community and the School Board. He is using the office of mayor on public policy and for the betterment on Jacksonville.
Q: What’s he doing wrong?
A: He would tell you that he is working hard to reach more of the community. It’s an opportunity to be a part of Ed Austin’s term and John Delaney’s eight years. But, they all struggled with problems. It’s an opportunity to know that you have made an impact on one million people and a whole region. I think he’s doing an extremely good job. He’s thoughtful and he understands the magnitude of the office.
Q: Did he ever get frustrated?
A: He heard about the frustrations of the job, but never realized it. John Peyton has the ability to see the positives in all situations and laugh at himself. He understands the importance of the office, but he does not take himself too seriously.
Q: Will the next mayor be a politician or a businessman?
A: Could be all of that. John Peyton is changing the dynamic of how people view that office and what they expect out of the mayor.
Q: Is he grooming someone to succeed him?
A: He’s going to think about what is important to the community and he is not going to leave this to chance. The community means a lot to him. His family is here and the Gate company headquarters are here.
Q: Do you need the approval of Blue Cross to get involved in things?
A: When I started with Blue Cross, I said, “I don’t know anything about insurance” and they said, “We don’t know a whole lot about politics.” If it’s external and not about Mike Hightower, then what I do is a reflection of Blue Cross Blue Shield. No matter what I do, people see me as representing 9,800 employees and 6.5 million customers. There is a process I go through with Blue Cross.
Q: You’ve won numerous awards and recognitions — what’s your greatest achievement?
A: My family. I’m able to do all this because I have a family that allows me to do this . . . I have a son who is 30 now . . . They’re very supportive. They keep me grounded. Sometimes my wife (of 39 years), she says, “I’m not your enemy. You don’t have to lobby me. I’m your wife. I’m your partner.”
Q: Have you ever failed at something?
A: I’m a work in progress. I make mistakes all day long. Having just one child and my wife, I step back and think of some of the times I wasn’t around.
Q: What motto do you live by?
A: “You may beat me but you’ll never outwork me.”
Q: What do you do to get away from everything?
A: I have a place up in North Carolina. I take my toothbrush, four bottles of wine, a pair of jeans and do nothing but read for five days. I read mystery novels.
Q: Do you have any physical outlets?
A: I walk, but I just enjoy life. I enjoy all the commitments, the synergism, the energy. I was not a jock in high school, but politics is a combat sport.