TALLAHASSEE — It is the talk of Tallahassee: Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz arrived in Orlando to accept an award from a business lobbying group and then banned two lobbyists from his office for orchestrating attacks on his candidates in the Republican primary.
Gaetz's scolding of the Associated Industries of Florida also included chastising them for not contributing enough money to his slate of candidates in the primary.
The admonition, in a town where legislative access is currency, hardball politics is routine and presiding officers are as close to royalty as it gets, also sent shivers through the lobbying corps. Few want to talk about it.
Gaetz, an amiable senior senator from the Panhandle town of Niceville, told the Times/Herald he wanted to send a message.
"I don't have a problem with hard-hitting campaigns, but families are off limits,'' Gaetz said in recounting the story this week.
He was referring to a mailer targeting former Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who was seeking a return to the Senate and was backed by Gaetz.
The mailer, which featured a fractured wedding photo and mentioned Lee's 2001 divorce, also claimed Lee had an affair, an allegation he has denied.
The piece was produced by the political committee run by Kenya Cory, an AIF lobbyist, and her husband, lobbyist Jack Cory. The Corys had supported Lee's opponent, state Rep. Rachel Burgin of Brandon, as well as two other unsuccessful candidates whom Gaetz opposed, Reps. Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville and Jim Frishe of St. Petersburg.
Gaetz addressed the annual AIF conference at the Rosen Single Creek in Orlando on Sept. 14 by first making a joke. He suggested that the AIF might prefer to be talking to "Sen. Weinstein" and "Sen. Frishe."
After light laughter, Gaetz next suggested that he was happy to see the Corys in the audience because he didn't plan to see them for the next two years while he was Senate president. The statement was greeted with silence.
"I understand people take opposing points of view on any given subject. That's just politics,'' Gaetz said this week. "What I object to is the way these two lobbyists went far beyond that and took it upon themselves to create a political committee which had at its purpose personal smears."
The Corys were among several veteran lobbyists who supported Burgin in the primary because of hard feelings over Lee. As Senate president, Lee pushed to implement a lobbyist gift ban and a requirement that they disclose some of their fees.
At the same time, AIF members have often antagonized Gaetz and others party leaders for its practice of contributing directly to candidates, rather than going through the Republican Party.
Gaetz said his comments were intended to "repair relations."
"I said I came not with whipping post but with an olive branch,'' he recalled. "I appealed to AIF to help our Republican candidates as best as they could."
Neither of the Corys nor anyone affiliated with the AIF would comment.
Keyna Cory said in an email: "I am sorry but I am not allowed to comment on anything that happens during an AIF conference or meeting.''
Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist who has represented Gaetz's businesses in the past, chalks it up to "raw politics."
"Don Gaetz is a blunt, brawling elected official who will fight tenaciously,'' he said. "They took it to a place they shouldn't have taken it," he said.
Correction: A lobbyist for AIF endorsed Reps. Rachel Burgin, Mike Weinstein and Jim Frishe. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.