TALLAHASSEE — It's a school day in Rugby, N.D., but 16-year-old Don Gaetz is playing hooky to watch television coverage of his father, a candidate for lieutenant governor, at the 1964 state Republican convention.
Don watches helplessly from his living room as his father — former town mayor, senator, working three jobs to make ends meet — has a fatal heart attack and collapses on the convention floor. The news cameras close in around his dying father.
"It was the first searing political experience of my life," says Gaetz, now 60.
That moment drives the sophomore Panhandle Republican, whose businessman's approach to education and health care is getting him attention as a likely future Senate president.
Around the Capitol, the multimillionaire hospice provider turned school superintendent is known for a hard-driving work ethic that respects Democrats but does not suffer fools or opposing lobbyists lightly.
He keeps the kind of long hours that ensures he and his staff are often still in the Capitol after most have gone home for the night. It's as if Gaetz is doing the work of two.
He's fulfilling the job he was elected to do by his Panhandle constituents. But he's also finishing the political career his father never could.
"Part of it is I love to campaign; part of it is I hate to lose," Gaetz said. His voice breaks. "But I also had a father who fought for what he believed in."
A voice heard early
When Gaetz came into the Senate last year as a freshman, longtime Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, advised Gaetz on a long-standing custom: New senators should say very little.
Gaetz, a college debate champion, didn't listen. He acquired a reputation on the floor for fierce rebuttals and speeches — some long winded — that wore down opposing lawmakers.
He has the unique advantage of having worked on the business side of both health care and public education — crucial services that make up two-thirds of the $70-billion state budget.
"The (Senate) president's got to be a good orator; Gaetz has that," King said recently. "He's got to be able to connect with people; he's got that. He's got to have the fire in his belly, and Gaetz has it."
Gaetz got nearly a dozen laws passed that first year.
"He can work with both sides of the political spectrum," said South Florida Democratic Sen. Nan Rich. "He respects other points of view."
This year he is working on several significant bills, including one to change how public high schools are graded and another to bring more accountability to charter school operations.
He is also passionate about health care, partly because of his hospice background. But also because of his wife, Vicky. She has been paralyzed since the birth of their 22-year-old daughter, Erin.
"She's the hero of my life," Gaetz said. "When I meet with families of people living with disabilities, I don't just view it as policy. I know something about living with a disability."
That personal commitment drives him to challenge lobbyists and others who come to argue their cases. He demands to see data that back up their claims.
"Oh, he can be tough, boy!" said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville. "You don't want to be on the wrong side of him."
Some say Gaetz can go too far, like this month when he dressed down state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg before a large crowd attending Gaetz's education committee.
The more Rosenberg seemed to dodge Gaetz's questions about university funding, the harsher Gaetz's tone got. He dismissed Rosenberg with a terse, "You're excused."
Heroes and hard work
"Unbought! Unbossed! Unbowed!"
So bragged the political poster touting Gaetz's father, Jerry, as "North Dakota's Most Progressive Mayor."
Gaetz keeps a photo of the yellowing poster in his Senate office, near a bust of Winston Churchill and a picture of Teddy Roosevelt. These three — father, British prime minister, U.S. president — were Gaetz's childhood heroes. The young Don Gaetz spent evenings with his father, reading books by Roosevelt and wartime speeches by Churchill.
Like Gaetz, Roosevelt was asthmatic but refused to let it hold him back. And in Churchill, Gaetz saw a tenacious leader.
Gaetz was a hospital administrator in Jacksonville in the 1970s when he discovered Florida had no hospice care programs for the dying.
He lobbied in Tallahassee to change that, and inside the Capitol he met his future business partner and friend, South Florida minister Hugh Westbrook. As conservative as Gaetz was, Westbrook was liberal.
They put their political differences aside and in 1983 turned an $1,800 investment into a for-profit hospice company, VITAS Healthcare Corp. They successfully lobbied Congress for the first Medicaid hospice benefit law.
"As driven as he is, he was hard to keep up with," Westbrook said.
Gaetz, Westbrook and third partner Esther Colliflower sold VITAS in 2004 for more than $400-million.
Gaetz kept working. He became an Okaloosa County school board member and later superintendent, turning the struggling district into a state model, with more A-rated schools than any other district.
But asked his greatest accomplishment so far in the Senate, he is demure.
"I don't know that I've had any big achievements," Gaetz said. "In politics, you have to earn and re-earn the right to be here."
Shannon Colavecchio-van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.