TALLAHASSEE — Republican senators Monday chose as their next leader Don Gaetz of Niceville, a product of the North Dakota prairie who became a highly successful hospice executive in Miami and found political success in the Florida Panhandle.
Gaetz, 63, long ago secured the votes of his GOP colleagues to lead the chamber for the 2012-14 term if his party retains a Senate majority in next year's elections.
That made Monday's ceremony a formality, but hundreds of his friends and neighbors came to the Capitol from Okaloosa County, famous for its beautiful beaches and sprawling military bases.
A 17-minute video produced by Tampa political consultant Adam Goodman traced Gaetz's roots in tiny Rugby, N.D., where he honed his debating skills and lived by a school motto that "there's nothing worse than second place."
He later led a team from Concordia College in Minnesota that defeated Harvard for a national debating title.
Gaetz edited a small-town weekly paper and gravitated to the health care field, where he and Miami business partner Hugh Westbrook developed the nation's largest network of hospices, Vitas Healthcare.
He lists a net worth of more than $25 million and owns seven homes — including one in picturesque Seaside that was used for many scenes of the movie The Truman Show.
A gifted speaker with a sarcastic wit and fiercely held opinions, the loquacious Gaetz joined the Senate in 2006 after serving as elected school board member and superintendent in Okaloosa, where he put into practice the educational policies championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush as student performance soared.
His son, Matt, a member of the Florida House, said his father became superintendent "because he went to too many PTA meetings."
As Gov. Rick Scott watched from the front row, Gaetz described a higher education system in Florida that has failed to produce the skilled science and math students the 21st century demands, which is why Fortune 500 companies shun Florida in droves.
"We're not even in the first tier of states where companies settle to create thousands and thousands of high-paying jobs," Gaetz said. "At best — at best — we're in the second tier, and there's no place worse than second place."
His two other goals as Senate president, he said, are to set "the highest ethical standards" for lawmakers and create a better environment for businesses to thrive.