Swimming with Sharks
Robert Highsmith Jr. navigates between politics, lobbying and ethics
Published in 2006 Georgia Rising Stars magazine
on September 15, 2006
Updated on February 14, 2017
Amid the staid, legal atmosphere of Robert Sparks Highsmith Jr.’s office on the 20th floor of Atlanta’s One Atlantic Center — brown carpet, law books, a framed photograph of former President George H.W. and first lady Barbara Bush — one object on his desk stands out: a purple plastic Easter egg, decorated with yellow-paper hair, googly eyes and a fuzzy pink nose.
“Bates, my almost-4-year-old, constructed this,” says Highsmith, proudly holding up the egg for better viewing.
Highsmith wears a comfortable suit with a tiny black-and-white hound’s-tooth pattern and a candy-cane striped bow tie that is slightly askew. A former deputy executive counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue, Highsmith is national team leader for Holland & Knight’s State Capitals Team and leads the firm’s Georgia government relations practice; but even after years of hobnobbing with the power players in the state Capitol, he has the relaxed manner of someone who just wandered out onto his front porch for a chat. He will gladly pull up a chair to discuss Georgia politics, the travails of building a tree house for his 6-year-old son, Robert Sparks Highsmith III, or his latest scuba diving adventure in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“I’d give all this up if I could make as much money running a dive boat,” he says. For a moment you almost believe him.
Highsmith is a fourth-generation lawyer from a family rooted in Baxley, Ga., a tiny rural community southwest of Savannah, and the seat of Appling County. But growing up he didn’t want to be a lawyer; he wanted to be an English professor. His father, a state court judge for 16 years, even had the budding lit student proofread legal opinions for spelling and grammar.
While working on his bachelor’s degree in English at Yale, though, Highsmith had a professor politely tell him to keep his options open. He ultimately agreed, and after graduating he enrolled in the University of Georgia School of Law.
“As soon as I got my law degree, I went down to the Appling County Courthouse,” Highsmith says. “It has one of these great, old, leather-bound volumes [where lawyers are registered]. The first Highsmith on the role goes back to 1897, and my name’s at the bottom.”
Highsmith was soon invited to work for Republican Guy Millner in his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, which he lost to Zell Miller. Highsmith also worked on Millner’s 1998 campaign, and although Millner narrowly lost to Roy Barnes, Highsmith came out a winner when, in early 2002, Gov. Barnes appointed him to the State Ethics Commission. “He did an excellent job working against me,” Barnes told Georgia Trend magazine in 2003. “Robert is a bright young attorney. I wish he was a Democrat.”
Highsmith also worked at Holland & Knight as the firm built its government practice in the South.
In 2002 Barnes was ousted by Sonny Perdue, who had made ethics a cornerstone of his campaign. Highsmith served as the governor’s transition counsel, then resigned from the ethics panel and Holland & Knight to become the governor’s deputy executive counsel.
“Robert is brilliant and creative,” says Harold Melton, Perdue’s former executive counsel, who has since become a state Supreme Court justice. “We had a great time working together.”
Serving on the governor’s legal team means facing a breadth of hot and heavy issues with, as Melton says, “a dearth of resources and a time crunch. Although Robert came in from the private sector, he had tremendous, detailed technical knowledge about legislative matters that proved invaluable.”
At the time, the atmosphere was heating up under the Gold Dome. Perdue was Georgia’s first Republican governor since before Reconstruction, bringing partisanship to a boil, and Highsmith drafted legislation for some of the most contentious issues of the day, including the governor’s principles of redistricting.
“Perdue will tell you that a primary reason he ran is he was disgusted with the Democrats’ 2001 redistricting plan, which represented the nadir of partisanship,” Highsmith says.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, gives a more graphic description of the Democrats’ attempt to maintain a grip on the state by spreading out the concentration of black voters. “National commentators lampooned it,” Bullock says. “The 13th District near Macon looked like a cat that had gotten flattened by an 18-wheeler lying across the expressway. It had a head, legs and a tail.”
In fact, before Perdue ran for office, a three-judge federal court ruled that the Democrats’ redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The state Legislature made minor changes to three of the Senate districts to satisfy the court, but state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, filed an appeal of the federal court’s decision. Four days after Perdue’s inauguration, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.
Perdue ordered Baker to drop the appeal. Baker refused, sparking another lawsuit.
“The perception was that Baker and Perdue were at loggerheads,” Highsmith says. “Ninety-five percent of the time, we worked hand in glove with the attorney general. But there aren’t any rawer politics than redistricting.”
Melton and Highsmith retained the outside counsel of Frank Jones in Perdue v. Baker, which Baker ultimately won before the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the legal team of Frank Strickland and Anne Lewis worked for the Georgia Republican Party on the continuing battles over redistricting. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately affirmed maps that had been redrawn under a 2004 court order, which, Highsmith says, “corrected the imbalance created by snaky line drawing and made the process independent and nonpartisan.”
Highsmith also worked on the initial draft of Perdue’s ethics reform package. “The bill I wrote [in 2003] gave sweeping powers to the State Ethics Commission to investigate corruption and conflicts of interest,” he says. “I confess to some naiveté.”
The draft bill, for example, banned state legislators from receiving gifts valued at more than $25. This gift limit was upped to $50 in 2004. The final 2005 version had no limit on gifts for legislators and did not give the Ethics Commission the enforcement power the governor originally sought. Instead, the state ended up with a self-regulating ethics panel within the Legislature.
“Some said that’s the fox guarding the henhouse, but I think there’s going to be a bright light on it,” says Highsmith. “At the very least, self-policing is a good start. It should be a check on some of the more egregious behavior we’ve seen in the past.”
The ethics package also proposed slowing down the “revolving door” of legislators who leave government service for lucrative lobbying positions. The original bill required a two-year wait before a former legislator could accept such a position, but the final version cut the wait to one year. It goes into effect in 2007.
“I think a short cooling-off period is appropriate,” Highsmith says. “You don’t want somebody legislating one day and then the next day out hustling clients.”
Which begs the question: Is it appropriate to be the governor’s point man on ethics one day, and the next day a team leader for one of the state’s biggest legal lobbying firms? Highsmith, who left the governor’s office in December 2004 to return to Holland & Knight, says a waiting period should not apply to him because he didn’t have decision-making power in the governor’s office. He shrugs off the suggestion that he is splitting hairs.
“We split hairs a lot in this business,” he says. “It’s kind of what we’re paid to do — find the right place to split the hair.”
Despite the Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham scandals, the lobbying industry isn’t exactly hurting in this country. In 2005, combined lobbying revenue of the 50 top-grossing law firms rose 9 percent to nearly $1 billion, while Holland & Knight’s lobbying revenue jumped 32 percent to $30.4 million, boosting the firm into the top 10.
Not surprisingly, Highsmith bristles at any reference to Abramoff, the once-powerful Washington lobbyist who is now serving time for fraud. “First of all, I think that the recent scandals were more isolated cases than the coverage would have you believe,” he says, adding that while Washington does not require legislators to disclose gifts, Georgia does. This helps discourage excess at the state level.
“I give a lot of lunches, a few committee dinners, but I don’t spend a lot of money,” says Highsmith, describing his lobbying style. “What I find is most effective is being 100 percent expert in whatever I’m talking about. The legislators I work with need to know they can rely on me to have the right answer at the tip of my tongue.
“The most important thing,” he adds, “is credibility. If you mislead a legislator, asking them to advocate a position using misleading facts, then you’re done. There’s no second chance.”
Highsmith says the best ethics advice he ever got came from his mom. “She told me, ‘Whatever you do, I want you to imagine it with a one-inch headline and a three-column story. If you’re OK with that, then go ahead with it.’’’ He smiles. “That’s a good way to run a law practice.”
Highsmith is especially proud of recent work on behalf of the BeltLine Partnership Inc., formed last year by Mayor Shirley Franklin to campaign for a 22-mile linear park encircling in-town neighborhoods. The city wants to make a 137-acre park on the west side of downtown, in an area now occupied by a stone quarry, the centerpiece of the BeltLine.
Highsmith advocated for the city’s BeltLine Partnership as it worked to convince commissioners of Fulton County, which owns the land, to approve its sale. The transaction was complicated by a long-term lease held by the quarry owner, and the county’s negotiations with the city to provide extra beds in the city jail to ease crowding at the Fulton County Jail.
“I helped make all the pieces fall into place in the required time frame, and we were ultimately successful,” says Highsmith. “The BeltLine is absolutely going to transform this city. I’m convinced of that. You don’t have major cities creating such large green spaces today. It was great to be part of this nascent stage of the BeltLine, and I expect I will continue to be involved.”
As for running for office himself? Highsmith briefly considered running for state attorney general this year. “I love working at the intersection of law and politics,” he says, “and that job is at the center of the universe of law and politics.” But his wife just had their third child, Elizabeth Campbell, in June, and he says, “If you’re going to be in politics, you’ve got to have a finely honed instinct for timing. I just didn’t feel it was the right time for me.”
Perhaps even more than state attorney general, Highsmith covets a spot on the volunteer diver crew, which cleans the massive tanks at the new Georgia Aquarium. He was a founding member of the aquarium, billed as the world’s largest, and part of the initial fundraising group.
“One diver does the vacuuming while another one uses a long pole to fight off the hammerheads,” says Highsmith, who has no qualms about getting into a tank with sharks after years of working in law and politics. He is currently going through diver recruitment. But in order to become a volunteer diver, you must pay your dues in less glamorous volunteer jobs at the facility. “I’ll be the guy,” Highsmith says, “standing in the lobby handing out maps, pointing out the Napoleon wrasse.”