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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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Matt Gaetz, now a well-known disrupter, honed his brash style in Florida


Leaderless and paralyzed by intraparty Republican fighting for nearly two weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives has been unable to agree on much. Yet members from both parties have found common ground in recent days: bitterness toward Rep. Matt Gaetz.

The hard-right Republican from the Florida Panhandle has attracted ire from fellow Republicans, Democrats and conservative media figures alike for leading the charge to oust Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this month. Some of the sharpest barbs have come from other Republicans from Florida.

“I’ve got serious issues with Matt Gaetz and what he just did, not only to the Republican Party but to this nation,” Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Miami told Fox Business on the day of the vote.

“I’m a ‘no’ on allowing Matt Gaetz and the other seven to win by putting their individual as speaker,” Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville said Friday when telling reporters why he was still casting his vote for McCarthy.

But it was within Florida that Gaetz honed his brash political style, say those who served with him in the Legislature. As a young state lawmaker in a state House crowded with other Republicans similarly destined for higher office, Gaetz managed to stand out for his tendency toward sharp-tongued debate and willingness to battle other Republicans on hot-button issues. It is also to Florida where Gaetz may return, as he is widely expected to run for governor in 2026.

“You may not agree with his politics, but as an orator or legislator, he is as talented as they come — and is someone who thinks strategically,” said former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who said Gaetz helped him get elected. “Matt only plays offense.”

Brandes said lawmakers used to play a game where they’d give Gaetz one minute to read a bill he’d never seen before, then he’d have to debate about it for five minutes.

“His skill and knowledge and ability to kind of riff on basically any issue was unworldly,” he said.

Gaetz has brushed off the chatter that he’s preparing for a run for governor in what will likely be a crowded Republican primary. Gov. Ron DeSantis is prevented from running again because of term limits.

Gaetz did not directly respond to a question about the 2026 race sent via email, but in a statement said his motivation for his high-profile political brawls has always been standing up for “regular folks.”

“I’m not afraid to stand up to lobbyists and special interests — and I never will be,” he said. “If that means I face tough battles, jeers and boos, so be it. That means I’m doing my job.”

Gaetz’s tenure in the state House, from 2010 to 2016, coincided with his father, Don Gaetz, serving in the Florida Senate, including two years as Senate president.

One of Matt Gaetz’s first tastes of national media attention came in 2013, when he played a major role in the debate surrounding Florida’s self-defense “stand your ground” law after Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member in Central Florida. Zimmerman was acquitted, and though he did not use “stand your ground” as his defense, language from the law was included in jury instructions.

Following Martin’s killing, Senate Republicans, including the law’s original author, proposed making changes to “stand your ground,” including adding restrictions on neighborhood watch programs.

But Gaetz, who led a key House committee at the time, dug in his heels. He said he would not change “one damn comma” in the law, displaying an inflexibility that would later earn him support from the most hard-line portion of the Republican base and a reputation among some lawmakers of being difficult.

The revisions failed to pass.

“Without a doubt, he likes the gamesmanship,” said former Sen. Perry Thurston of Lauderhill, who was the Democratic House minority leader during this period. “That time sort of groomed him for where he is now.”

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Thurston said he grew frustrated by some of his fellow Democrats’ respect for Gaetz and his speaking acumen. Several Democrats joined with Republicans in Gaetz’s committee to vote against repealing “stand your ground” in 2013.

“I thought he was all hat and no cattle,” Thurston said. “He’s shown he’ll do whatever he has to do to stay in the limelight.”

Former Republican Rep. Matt Caldwell, now the Lee County property appraiser, remembered working with Gaetz in 2014 to increase Floridians’ access to cannabidiol, or CBD, which is a compound found in marijuana. Caldwell said he remembered Republican leadership being less than enthusiastic about anything involving marijuana during the party’s initial strategy meetings, but Gaetz forged ahead.

“He can be a bit of a lightning rod, without question,” Caldwell said. “(But) contrary to people’s criticism that he does everything to climb the political ladder … he measures his success to be able to shape and change things.”

Some of Gaetz’s involvement with medical marijuana policy later became fodder for a pay-to-play investigation into him in 2021 by federal authorities, according to news reports. That investigation also included looking into whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl.

The Justice Department decided not to bring any charges against Gaetz.

Then and now, Gaetz’s critics have sometimes openly wondered whether he truly believes his entrenched positions or if it’s political theater. But back in his district, which is among the reddest in the country, Gaetz enjoys emphatic support. He won reelection last year by more than 35 points.

After his recent rebellion in the U.S. House, several Republican voters in his home district were quoted innews stories saying they supported his maneuvers.

He sent out fundraising emails throughout his bid to oust McCarthy, telling supporters: “I’ve got more enemies than ever, just because I won’t bend the knee. … Chip In $10.”

Rick Kriseman, who overlapped with Gaetz in the Florida House for about two years before Kriseman became mayor of St. Petersburg, said Gaetz seemed to like those who argued with him most fiercely.

“I was a Democrat so I was never going to win, but I enjoyed debating him,” said Kriseman, who now works at a lobbying firm. “Actually, when he heard I was leaving … he told me he was going to miss me.”

On Friday, Gaetz fanned the flames of conflict with a less likely group: conservative Fox News commentators whose shows he frequents.

In one instance, after Fox host Laura Ingraham sarcastically called him “BRILLIANT” on X, formerly Twitter, for ousting McCarthy as leadership talks stalled, Gaetz posted a retort. “Breathe, Laura,” he wrote.

Two hours later, he posted a video montage of Ingraham criticizing Gaetz during the previous House leadership drama, when McCarthy was elected after 15 ballots. In a later clip, she is seen praising him for “hold(ing) out.”

“We know you will come around. Just like you did last time,” Gaetz wrote on X, addressing Ingraham. “We will always appreciate you.”