TALLAHASSEE — Before Matt Gaetz burst onto 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 dad, former Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, AKA “Papa Gaetz,” a powerful and hard-nosed negotiator who lorded over politics in the Panhandle for a generation.
Even as a federal investigation looms over Matt Gaetz, the wealthy 73-year-old Don Gaetz still holds considerable sway in the region, including serving as chairman of the board of a non-profit corporation responsible for handing out tens of millions of dollars given to the state in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Matt Gaetz’s political trail was not just preceded but heavily influenced by his father, a Republican multi-millionaire businessman who had a reputation for rhetorical flourishes and drag-out political fights. Don Gaetz all but paved his son’s way into Florida’s political world, and some suggest that his father’s stature and influence is even helping his son as he faces a probe into potential sex trafficking.
“He was a force of nature,” said former state Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican who was budget chairman under Don Gaetz. “Don held himself to an incredibly high standard of ethics, preparation and performance and demanded no less from those around him. If you’re going into a tough battle, there is no ally more loyal and unflinching than Don Gaetz. It’s not surprising that the historical figure that Don most admires is Winston Churchill.”
And Don Gaetz found himself in plenty of battles — and still is today. Last year, he went after a former legislator who once fired his son and who was seeking local office. Don Gaetz clashed enough times with former Gov. Rick Scott — now a senator — that the GOP governor lined up opposition to Don Gaetz’s bid to become president of the University of West Florida.
“Don has a lot of power and friends in Florida politics,” one Florida political operative said, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to anger the elder Gaetz. “There are a lot of people who owe him favors. They are repaying those favors by staying silent about his son.”
Or as Ray Sansom, a former northwest Florida legislator who used to have a closing working relationship with Gaetz put it: “There’s obviously people who respect Don. There’s obviously people who feel like they have been hurt by him … Don’s very rough. If 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 inserted himself into his son’s legal troubles by openly discussing a possible extortion attempt in connection with the federal investigation into Matt Gaetz, did agree to talk about his falling out with Sansom during a brief visit to Tallahassee Friday. He explained his reticence by saying, “I raised Matt through a lot in his life and I don’t want to add to his miseries.”
The elder Gaetz acknowledged his penchant for political warfare in a farewell message he wrote to his constituents when he left office in 2016.
“I cherish the smashmouth fights over matters of principle,” he wrote. “I richly earned my opponents, giving, I hope, as good as I got. Politics can be thrilling and noble, just as it can be base and disgusting.”
Rise from tragedy
The path that took Don Gaetz to power began in North Dakota, where his own father, a former mayor who was running for lieutenant governor, died suddenly during a Republican Party convention in 1964. Don Gaetz, who was just 16 at the time, watched in horror on television. Gaetz, who went to college on a debate scholarship, would eventually move south to Florida and earn his fortune running a health care company before diving into politics in Okaloosa County by winning a seat to the local school board — and then school superintendent.
That climb then took Don Gaetz to the Florida Legislature, where he was first elected in 2006 and eventually rose to become Senate president in 2012. Two years earlier, his son Matt Gaetz was elected in the Florida House, marking the first time in state history that a father and son were both in the Legislature at the same time. The two roomed together, a fact that Don Gaetz — bespectacled, well-dressed and prone to the occasional sweater vest under his suit coat — would joke about by saying that his son was always stealing his colored silk ties.
In the Legislature, Don Gaetz became known for his oratory skills — and just like his son — the ability to come up with a snappy comeback or a tartly-worded reply.
When confronted by an Obamacare opponent who wanted the Legislature to nullify the federal law, Gaetz shot back an email where he relayed a story about President Andrew Jackson, who supposedly threatened to shoot and hang a group that wanted the president to nullify an unpopular tariff. “Chaplain, I have sworn an oath on my father’s Bible before Almighty God to preserve, protect and defend the constitution and government of the United States,” Don Gaetz wrote. “And that’s exactly what I intend to do. Count me with Andrew Jackson.”
Collier Merrill, a Pensacola businessman and GOP donor, said that Don Gaetz could be direct and blunt when asked for help. Merrill, who got to know Don Gaetz when he was Okaloosa County school superintendent and both were considering running for Congress after Joe Scarborough resigned, recalled a meeting he set up between Don Gaetz and a local hospital CEO seeking financial help from the state.
“He told her, ‘I can you give you the warm wash rag treatment or I can tell you the truth,’” Merrill recalled.
Don Gaetz, famed for lengthy speeches replete with historical references that were even parodied during the annual press corps skits, was no less blunt when he pushed for a crackdown on swamp-like behavior in Tallahassee.
While he was in the Senate, Don Gaetz made toughening the state’s notoriously loose ethics laws a top priority. His official Senate portrait features him holding the legislation he championed. Don Gaetz would go further and helped put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 Florida ballot that put in place a six-year ban on former legislators and former state officials from lobbying state government.
“He’s all the things you want in your government leaders,” said state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who is also a former House speaker. “He knows his policy area better than anybody. He’s a hard worker. He’s one of the — if the not the best — negotiator 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 charitable work, including making available rental property for free to family friends or acquaintances down on their luck. Vicky Gaetz uses a wheelchair after suffering a complication during her pregnancy with Matt’s sister, Erin Gaetz. Vicky Gaetz is an animal rights supporter who for years backed a move to allow dog tracks in the state to keep certain of gambling if they ended dog racing. The measure passed in 2018 after it was placed on the ballot by the state’s Constitution Revision Commission — which Don Gaetz sat on.
Sometimes his tactics backfired and created ill-will. He got involved in a failed leadership coup when he tried to help a scheme to usurp a central Florida Republican in line to succeed him. Gaetz also led redistricting efforts to draw up new Senate districts that were thrown out by the state Supreme Court. During the legal battles over redistricting, the Senate eventually admitted that it violated anti-gerrymandering laws when drawing them up.
Gaetz also lashed out at a fellow Republican in the Senate who was blocking his bill that would have allowed Floridians to openly carry guns. (The House companion was sponsored by Matt Gaetz.) That prompted another GOP senator to label Gaetz a hypocrite.
“He did make some enemies in Tallahassee,” Merrill said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Long line of foes
One of those enemies turned out to be the man who his son would replace in the Florida Legislature: Ray Sansom.
Sansom, who once worked in the Okaloosa County school system directly under Don Gaetz, would have his political career derailed just as he had risen to House speaker. He and Gaetz were friends and allies and Gaetz celebrated when Sansom was first designated as speaker. But Sansom was indicted in 2009 over charges he steered state funds to a project benefitting a GOP donor.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Sansom also came under fire for getting a high-paying job with a community college that got help in the state budget. His use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card also came under scrutiny. Samson eventually resigned, paving the way for Matt Gaetz to win the House seat in a special election.
Sansom said his relationship with Don Gaetz had already broken down before the scandal because he claims he was forced to fire Matt Gaetz. He told POLITICO he hired Matt Gaetz initially as his legislative aide, but then switched him to a job with the Republican Party. But after a period of three to four months, he fired the younger Gaetz because he failed to show up to work.
He said that Matt Gaetz told him that this was his time to not have to come to work so he could “sow his wild oats.”
“If you are going to make $5,000 a month you have to come to work,” said Sansom, who said he had tried to have a “friend-to-friend” chat with Don Gaetz that he had concerns about Matt. But he said it soured their relationship.
Matt Gaetz, when asked about Sansom’s assertion that he didn’t show up for work, called him a “bitter defeated politician who has lost more races than he has won in the community that still strongly has my back. That must be hard for him.”
The younger Gaetz, in that same text message, pointed out that in 2020 when Sansom ran for superintendent — the same post his father held — that he “contributed substantially to the effort” to defeat him and that “lost by a very wide margin.”
“The things Sansom has said about me are false. Maybe he keeps losing elections because he can’t show up for work. Maybe I keep winning elections because I fight for our people in a way Sansom never did.”
Don Gaetz also forcefully denied that he ever had a conversation where Sansom criticized his son.
“To me, it’s sad that Ray is sort of working out his feelings as a defeated and disgraced ex-politician by saying these things about Matt 14 years later,” Don Gaetz said. “If all of this was weighing on him, why did he wait 14 years to say anything?”
The elder Gaetz said his decision to break with Sansom was related to his personal conduct.
“My falling out with Ray had nothing to do with Matt,” Don Gaetz said. “My falling out with Ray had to do his actions as a speaker designate and the way in which he mixed up public business with his personal self-interest.”
Last year, Sansom tried to mount a political comeback by running for school superintendent. The Gaetzes backed his opponent — with money going from a federal committee linked to Matt Gaetz to a Florida political committee that ran ads attacking Sansom as untrustworthy.
In one notable instance, Don Gaetz bent to the political will of other Republicans. Scott was facing a tough re-election fight in 2014 and was backing a bill granting a tuition break to undocumented university students. Don Gaetz was opposed — as was his son — but the Senate president allowed the bill to pass.
“I knew that philosophically he didn’t agree with it,” said Will Weatherford, who was the GOP House speaker 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 he would let it see the light of day without any arm twisting.”
But the moment of comity wouldn’t last. Scott was still seen as instrumental in blocking Don Gaetz from securing the presidency of the University of West Florida in Pensacola in 2016 after he emerged as one of the finalists during his final year in office. Don Gaetz had earned Scott’s ire due to his criticism of the governor’s style and inability to connect with Republican legislators.
That same year, then-Rep. Jeff Miller announced he would not seek re-election to his safely Republican northwest Florida congressional seat.
Don Gaetz had once been seen as the natural successor to the congressional seat, while his son would instead vie for a spot in the state Senate in what would likely have been an expensive and bruising Republican primary. Contending that he decided he didn’t want to be in Congress, Don Gaetz bowed out — and instead recruited someone else to run for the spot: His son Matt.
Five years later, Don Gaetz once again was involved in trying to help his son’s political career. Only this time, instead of winning an election, the father wound up wearing a wire as part of an FBI probe into an elaborate extortion scheme.
The scheme itself apparently arose out of the sex trafficking investigation into Matt Gaetz, although the two do not appear to be directly related.
Matt Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing.
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