Gaetz says he’s not going anywhere. Florida Republicans aren’t saying anything.

In the weeks since the bombshell New York Times report, Gaetz is defiant. Meanwhile, a hush has fallen over Tallahassee, where he once served.
Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks at a "Women for American First" event April 9 in Doral.
Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks at a "Women for American First" event April 9 in Doral. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published May 1, 2021|Updated May 1, 2021

Beneath the cloud hanging over him, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is going about his business like any other lawmaker from the Sunshine State.

Gaetz hasn’t missed a floor vote in Congress since late March, when the New York Times reported that federal authorities were investigating whether the Panhandle Republican had a sexual encounter with a 17-year-old girl. He remains active on his committees, where he recently plugged an environmental bill and questioned military leaders about African conflicts. Earlier this month, he introduced legislation to rename a Niceville post office.

He is tweeting. He is fundraising. And despite the questions swirling around him, he has made it clear: He isn’t going anywhere.

“Rest assured, we’re still working hard for Northwest Florida, our state and our country,” Gaetz said in an April 19 video recorded outside his congressional office.

Stories continue to trickle out about Gaetz and his friendship with Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County tax collector arrested last June. The U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which began last year with President Donald Trump still in office, is reportedly exploring whether Gaetz and Greenberg recruited women online and paid for them to travel and to have sex. Greenberg faces at least 33 charges, ranging from stalking a political opponent to sex trafficking minors.

Recent reports suggest Greenberg is cooperating with federal investigators, and his attorney told reporters in early April, “I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”

Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged with anything. There is no timeline for investigators, casting an indefinite pall over Gaetz’s future.

In the meantime, a hush has fallen over Tallahassee, where Gaetz spent six years as a bombastic and outspoken lawmaker. Florida’s top Republicans have declined to weigh in, electing not to defend nor criticize Gaetz.

“I have no thoughts,” Senate President Wilton Simpson recently said.

“I don’t have any reaction to it,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.

“I don’t have anything to say,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said, cutting off a reporter before the question was finished.

The public silence has extended beyond Republicans. Some lobbying groups have advised employees not to talk about Gaetz to reporters. And Democrats, who typically pounce on any stumble by a Republican, are noticeably quiet. The state’s top Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, needles DeSantis almost daily on Twitter but hasn’t posted once about Gaetz.

When the Tampa Bay Times reached out, her political spokesman Max Flugrath said in a statement that Fried was “saddened, shocked and disturbed by the serious allegations detailed in reports” about Gaetz.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Among the few lawmakers to speak out was state Rep. Anna Eskamani. The Orlando Democrat posted to social media about an encounter with Gaetz and Greenberg from July 4, 2019, when the Republicans left her a voicemail.

The two called to let Eskamani know they were “just chatting about you and your lovely qualities.”

“We think you’re the future of the Democratic Party in Florida,” Gaetz said.

Eskamani kept the voicemail to herself for two years. She considered the unwanted attention “another day being a woman in politics,” she said. But after the New York Times report, the voicemail sounded different. Gaetz’s exaggerated interest in the career of a 20-something female politico he barely knew felt creepier, even predatory. Eskamani decided to release the audio of the call in hopes others would step forward with stories of their interactions with Gaetz and Greenberg. Publicly, no one has.

“We can’t hold back in calling out a hostile and dangerous culture for women and girls,” said Eskamani, now 30.

Far from relegating Gaetz to political purgatory, the investigation appears to be fueling a rise in his stock among his most ardent supporters.

He raised $1.8 million in the first three months of the year, despite no real threat for his deeply red seat. (Some of that he has spent on legal fees.) He continues to find support among the MAGA faithful, appearing before adoring admirers at a recent pro-Trump women’s event in Doral. And some within conservative media have come to his defense, suggesting Gaetz has been wronged by leakers in the Justice Department and an overzealous press that doesn’t like him.

Writing on a website for young conservatives, Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republicans Club, opined that if “he can weather the storm, Gaetz could become unstoppable and prove to be the heir to Trump.” Gaetz tweeted it out to his followers.

“If he is innocent like he says he is, he’s going to continue to be influential in politics,” said Anna Paulina Luna, a Republican candidate for U.S. representative from Pinellas County who was boosted by a Gaetz endorsement in her 2020 primary. “No one should be convicted in the court of public opinion. I would tell Republicans to err on the side of proof. We’ve seen nothing to convince us otherwise.”

Gaetz confirmed the existence of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation to the New York Times, but he has denied having sex with a minor or paying for sex. He said he is the victim of a $25 million extortion scheme to free a prisoner in Iran.

His office did not respond to three emails, a phone call and a text message requesting comment.

Gaetz, 38, was first elected to the Florida House in 2010 in a special election and quickly earned a reputation as a gifted orator, a reliable conservative vote and a regular in Tallahassee’s night life after long session days. Gaetz was involved in a rowdy incident at a Disney World hotel during a Republican retreat that required a public apology from then-House Speaker Will Weatherford.

The Tampa Bay Times contacted 20 current or former Florida lawmakers who served with Gaetz. Most declined to comment or didn’t return phone calls. Others distanced themselves, like state Sen. Travis Hutson, who said he didn’t spend time with Gaetz outside the Capitol and couldn’t speak to his behavior.

“I’m one of the ones who goes to work and then goes home,” said Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican. “I’m not one of the social butterflies.”

There were rumors about younger lawmakers who liked to go out at night, said state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, “but I didn’t run in similar circles.”

Gaetz left Tallahassee after a successful bid for Congress in 2016. In the years since, the Legislature confronted the culture of sexual harassment that overlapped with his time there. At the height of the #metoo movement in 2018, Florida Republicans ousted one of their own, state Sen. Jack Latvala, after a female aide alleged that Latvala repeatedly harassed her.

Amid the fallout, several female lawmakers spoke about the inappropriate behavior they often faced. State Sen. Debbie Mayfield told the Miami Herald at the time that as a new lawmaker, she learned that men had a scoring system to rank the women who worked in the Capitol.

A bill that would have outlawed unwanted sexual advances by public officials died in the Senate in 2018. Lawmakers haven’t addressed the issue since.

“Matt Gaetz is one of the most extreme examples of bro culture, but he came from bro culture and it still exists,” Eskamani said.

Last year, state. Rep. Chris Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican and the son of Jack Latvala, publicly accused Gaetz of creating a game where male lawmakers could earn points for having sex with lawmakers, lobbyists and staff. At the time, Gaetz said he had “no idea” what Latvala was talking about.

Other lawmakers have said they were aware the game existed. State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told the Times he heard about it but “whoever was playing had the common sense not to tell me.”

“I was informed about it as soon as I was elected, before I even got to Tallahassee,” said Kathleen Peters, a Republican Pinellas County commissioner who served in the Legislature from 2012 to 2018. “But the guys kept it to themselves.”

In the wake of the latest reports about Gaetz, Latvala declined to revisit his 2020 accusation.

“When I went down that road last year, nobody said anything,” Latvala said. “So I’m not going to do that again.”

In Washington, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he won’t take action against Gaetz unless charges are filed. House Republicans have not pushed for Gaetz to step down, and he continues to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that oversees the federal agency investigating him.

The circumstances have sidelined Gaetz from the airwaves where he built his profile as one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress. After the allegations became public, Gaetz attempted to address the investigation on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Carlson called it “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted,” and Gaetz has mostly avoided high-profile appearances since.

On Wednesday night, Carlson raised suspicions about the investigation into Gaetz during a segment of his show and floated conspiracies about why it was leaked to The New York Times.

”It took him completely off the map as a rhetorical force,” Carlson said. “Whatever his flaws may be, Matt Gaetz is smart, he’s articulate and he’s brave.”

Gaetz tweeted the video with the message: “Thank you Tucker Carlson!”

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.