TALLAHASSEE – Before Matt Gaetz entered the national political scene as the sharp-tongued, attention-grabbing defender of Donald Trump, he was best known in Florida as “Baby Gaetz”.
The nickname underscored how much he lived in the shadow of his father, former Florida Senator Don Gaetz, AKA “Papa Gaetz,” a powerful and die-hard negotiator who ruled panhandle politics for a generation.
Even with a federal investigation into Matt Gaetz pending, wealthy 73-year-old Don Gaetz still has a significant impact on the region, including serving as the chairman of a nonprofit company responsible for spending tens of millions of dollars on the state after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Matt Gaetz’s political lead not only preceded but was heavily influenced by his father, a Republican multimillionaire businessman known for his rhetorical flourishes and protracted political battles. Don Gaetz almost paved the way for his son into the political world of Florida, and some suggest that his father’s stature and influence even help his son when faced with an investigation into the potential sex trafficking.
“He was a force of nature,” said former Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican who was the budget chairman under Don Gaetz. “Don held to an incredibly high standard of ethics, preparation, and performance, and asked no less of those around him. When you get into an uphill battle, there is no ally more loyal and steadfast than Don Gaetz. It is not surprising that the historical figure Don most admires is Winston Churchill. “
And Don Gaetz was in many battles – and still is today. Last year he followed up on a former lawmaker who had fired his son and was looking for a local office. Don Gaetz ran into the former governor often enough. Rick scott – now a senator – that the GOP governor opposed Don Gaetz’s offer to become president of the University of West Florida.
“Don has a lot of power and friends in Florida politics,” said a Florida politician on condition of anonymity in order not to upset the older Gaetz. “There are many people who owe him favors. They repay these favors by keeping silent about his son. “
Or as Ray Sansom, a former Northwest Florida legislator who used to have a close working relationship with Gaetz, put it: “There are obviously people who respect Don. There are obviously people who feel like they have been hurt by him … Don is very rough. When he’s against you, he’s against you in a very rough way. “
Don Gaetz initially declined a request for an interview. But the elder Gaetz, who meddled in his son’s legal troubles by openly discussing a possible blackmail attempt related to the federal investigation into Matt Gaetz, agreed during a brief visit to Tallahassee on Friday over his dispute with Sansom to speak. He explained his reluctance by saying, “I raised Matt a lot in his life and I don’t want to add to his misery.”
The elderly Gaetz confirmed his fondness for political warfare in a farewell message he wrote to his constituents when he stepped down from office in 2016.
“I appreciate the Smashmouth policy battles,” he wrote. “I have earned my opponents a lot and hopefully given as well as possible. Politics can be exciting and noble just as it can be simple and gross. “
Rise from the tragedy
The path that brought Don Gaetz to power began in North Dakota, where his own father, a former mayor running for lieutenant governor, suddenly died during a Republican Party convention in 1964. The then only 16-year-old Don Gaetz looked too horrified on television. Going to college on a debate scholarship, Gaetz eventually moved south to Florida and made his fortune running a health care company before delving into Okaloosa County politics by winning a seat on the local school board – and then the headmaster .
That rise led Don Gaetz to the Florida legislature, where he was elected for the first time in 2006 and finally rose to the position of Senate President in 2012. Two years earlier, his son Matt Gaetz was elected to Florida House for the first time in state history to have a father and son in the legislature at the same time. The two figured out, a fact that Don Gaetz – with glasses, well dressed and prone to the occasional sweater vest under his suit coat – joked about, saying that his son always stole his colored silk ties.
In the legislature, Don Gaetz became known for his oratorical skills – and just like his son – for the ability to make a snappy comeback or a sharply worded answer.
When faced with an Obamacare opponent who wanted lawmakers to repeal federal law, Gaetz returned an email sharing a story about President Andrew Jackson who allegedly threatened to shoot and hang a group who wanted the president to lift an unpopular tariff. “Kaplan, I swore an oath on my father’s Bible before Almighty God to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution and government of the United States,” wrote Don Gaetz. “And that’s exactly what I intend to do. Count me to Andrew Jackson. “
Collier Merrill, a Pensacola businessman and GOP donor, said Don Gaetz could be direct and open when asked for help. Merrill, who met Don Gaetz while he was headmaster in Okaloosa County and both of them were considering running for Congress after Joe Scarborough’s resignation, recalled a meeting he had organized between Don Gaetz and a local hospital director to order receive financial aid from the state.
“He said to her,” I can give you the warm washcloth treatment or I can tell you the truth, “Merrill recalled.
Don Gaetz, famous for his long speeches full of historical references that were even parodied during the press corps’ annual skits, was no less dull in pushing for crackdown on marshy behavior in Tallahassee.
During his time in the Senate, Don Gaetz made tightening the state’s notoriously loose ethical laws a top priority. His official Senate portrait shows him with the legislation he campaigned for. Don Gaetz would go further and help make a constitutional amendment for the Florida ballot in 2018 that included a six-year ban on lobbying former lawmakers and former state officials for lobbying the state government.
“He’s everything you want your leaders to be,” said State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who is also a former House Speaker. “He knows his policy area better than anyone. He’s a hard worker. He’s one of the, if not the best, negotiators I’ve ever worked with. “
Gaetz also donated the equivalent of his legislative salary to charity, and both Gaetz and his wife Vicky were known for their community service, including providing free rental properties to friends or acquaintances in the family who had lost their luck. Vicky Gaetz uses a wheelchair after complications with Matt’s sister Erin Gaetz during her pregnancy. Vicky Gaetz is an animal rights activist who has been helping a step for years so that state dog tracks can be sure that when they finish the dog race they will be playing. The measure was passed in 2018 after it was put on the ballot by the state commission for the revision of the constitution, on which Don Gaetz sat.
Sometimes his tactics failed and caused bad will. He became embroiled in a failed leadership coup while trying to aid a plan to usurp a Central Florida Republican. Gaetz also led restructuring efforts to establish new Senate Districts that were rejected by the state’s Supreme Court. During the redistribution litigation, the Senate eventually admitted that it had violated anti-gerrymandering laws in creating it.
Gaetz also hit a Republican in the Senate who blocked his bill, which would have allowed the Floridians to openly bear arms. (The house companion was sponsored by Matt Gaetz.) This prompted another GOP senator to label Gaetz a hypocrite.
“He made some enemies in Tallahassee,” said Merrill. “There is no doubt about that.”
Long line of enemies
One of those enemies turned out to be the man his son would replace in Florida law: Ray Sansom.
Sansom, who once worked directly under Don Gaetz in the Okaloosa County’s school system, would derail his political career when he was promoted to Speaker of the House of Representatives. He and Gaetz were friends and allies, and Gaetz celebrated when Sansom was first designated as the speaker. But Sansom was charged in 2009 for channeling state funding for a project to benefit a GOP donor.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Sansom also came under fire for getting a high-paying job at a community college that was getting help with the state budget. His use of a Florida Republican Party credit card was also examined. Samson eventually resigned and paved the way for Matt Gaetz to win the seat of the house in a special election.
Sansom said his relationship with Don Gaetz collapsed before the scandal because he claims he was forced to fire Matt Gaetz. He told POLITICO that he initially hired Matt Gaetz as legal advisor, but then hired him with the Republican Party. But after three to four months he dismissed the younger Gaetz because he did not show up for work.
He said Matt Gaetz told him this was his time not to have to come to work so he could “sow his wild oats”.
“If you want to make $ 5,000 a month, you have to come to work,” said Sansom, who said he tried “friend-to-friend” with Don Gaetz that he had concerns about Matt. But he said it spoiled their relationship.
When asked about Sansom’s claim he didn’t show up for work, Matt Gaetz called him a “bitterly defeated politician who lost more races than he won in the community that still has my back.” It must be difficult for him. ”
The younger Gaetz pointed out in the same text message that when Sansom ran for superintendent in 2020 – the same post his father held – he “was instrumental in the effort” to defeat him and that he was “with has lost a great deal of distance. ”
“The things Sansom said about me are wrong. Maybe he keeps losing elections because he can’t show up for work. Maybe I’ll keep winning elections because I fight for our people in a way that Sansom never did. “
Don Gaetz also insistently denied ever having had a conversation in which Sansom criticized his son.
“It’s sad to me that Ray is working out his feelings as a defeated and ashamed ex-politician by saying these things about Matt 14 years later,” said Don Gaetz. “If all of this bothered him, why did he wait 14 years to say something?”
The elderly Gaetz said his decision to break with Sansomware had to do with his personal behavior.
“My argument with Ray had nothing to do with Matt,” said Don Gaetz. “My argument with Ray had to do with his acts as speaker-designate and the way he mixed public business with personal self-interest.”
Last year, Sansom attempted a political comeback by running for headmaster. The Gaetzes supported his opponent – with money that went from a federal committee affiliated with Matt Gaetz to a political committee in Florida that ran advertisements attacking Sansom as untrustworthy.
In one notable case, Don Gaetz bowed to the political will of other Republicans. Scott faced a tough re-election campaign in 2014 and supported a bill that gave undocumented college students a break from studying. Don Gaetz – like his son – was against it, but the President of the Senate allowed the law to pass.
“I knew he was philosophically against this,” said Will Weatherford, who was the GOP House spokesman at the time. “He didn’t make the decision for his chamber. He allowed his chamber to vote on the bill. He gave me his word that he would let it see the light of day without his arm turning.”
But the comity moment would not last. Scott was still seen as instrumental in preventing Don Gaetz from assuming the presidency of the University of West Florida at Pensacola in 2016, having emerged as a finalist in his senior year in office. Don Gaetz deserved Scott’s wrath for criticizing the governor’s style and for being unable to liaise with Republican lawmakers.
In the same year, then-Rep. Jeff Miller announced that he would not seek re-election to his safe Republican congress seat in northwest Florida.
Don Gaetz had once been seen as the natural successor to the Congress seat, while his son vied for a place in the Senate instead in what would likely have been an expensive and bloody Republican elementary school. When Don Gaetz claimed that he did not want to be in Congress, he bowed – and instead recruited someone else to run for the place: his son Matt.
Five years later, Don Gaetz was again involved in supporting his son’s political career. Only this time, instead of winning an election, the father carried a wire as part of an FBI investigation into an elaborate blackmail scheme.
The system itself apparently emerged from Matt Gaetz’s sex trafficking investigation, although the two don’t appear to be directly related.
Matt Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing.