Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz stands his ground in defense of controversial law

Published Nov. 7, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Five hours have been set aside for today's "stand your ground" hearing in the Florida House, where changes to the law, including its repeal, will be considered.

For many, it will be their first exposure to the chairman of the hearing, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a brash 31-year-old Twitter aficionado who three months ago declared he didn't support "changing one damn comma" in the 2005 law.

Although Gaetz promises he will give equal time to the law's opponents and insists his ultra-conservative biases won't interfere, his strident, ready-to-pounce debating style rarely cedes ground.

"If you're in the fight and Matt's on your side, that's a great thing," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity. "And if he's not, that's a very bad thing."

Gaetz's reputation as one of the Legislature's best orators belies another view of him as an entitled ne'er-do-well.

The son of Senate President Don Gaetz is an attorney and lists his net worth at $1 million. He's called "Baby Gaetz" by some and known for late-night antics.

"I'm a legislator, not a monk," he jokes.

Those close to him say the partying image makes it easy for people to underestimate him.

"When I first met him, I thought he was a kid resting on the laurels of his father," said Rep. John Tobia, who roomed with Gaetz during the 2011 and 2012 sessions. "Nothing could be further from the truth. He brought more work home than anyone. When I got up to go to the gym in the morning, he'd be going into the office."

A graduate of Florida State University and the College of William and Mary law school, Gaetz won his first campaign at age 28 during a 2010 special election to replace former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned after he was accused of scheming to get $6 million in state money to pay for a hangar at the Destin airport for developer Jay Odom.

Gaetz, a former legislative aide for Sansom and a former attorney for Odom, raised $453,000 in contributions against four other Republicans and one Democrat, none of whom could muster more than $100,000.

"Matt simply outworked his opponents," Don Gaetz said. "Perhaps people gave (to his campaign) thinking he was a chip off the old block. Perhaps that helped. But I can assure you that he didn't get many contributions he could have because of the many lobbyists who didn't like me. It probably hurt him more than it helped."

Gaetz has won two "re-elections" without drawing an opponent, and has already filed to run in 2016 in his father's Senate district, where he's raised $373,000 and chased away a challenge from Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.

Gaetz credits his political success to the same traits that open him to criticism. He's very conservative. He doesn't hide his emotions. And he will openly confront his opponents.

"I would not make a good poker player," Gaetz said. "I play with my cards face up."

He has sponsored (and passed) some of the most conservative legislation in a conservative-dominated Legislature. His bills have fined local governments $5 million if they impose any restrictions on guns, banned insurance policies created through Obamacare from offering abortion coverage, and expedited death row cases so executions could be moved up.

It's a hard-edged legislative record that becomes even sharper when Gaetz takes to social media. With nearly 4,000 Twitter followers, @mattgaetz is known for one of the rawest feeds in Tallahassee. It's part commentary, part GOP and FSU fanboy, and part insult comic.

"What are the odds @charliecristfl ultimately changes political parties more often than he has failed the Bar Exam?" he tweeted recently.

Gaetz says he takes social media seriously as a political communications tool.

"The old format with just having dialogue within the walls of the Capitol has been deconstructed by Twitter," Gaetz said. "The modern approach to legislating is evolving. It forces legislators to engage with real people."

Asked if he regrets any of his 3,500 tweets, Gaetz paused.

"There might have been a few I wouldn't have sent if I waited 10 to 20 seconds," Gaetz said.

Like the following message he tweeted in October?

"Yesterday I saw a lady at Publix use her 'Access' welfare card. Her back was covered in tattoos. RT if u support entitlement reform."

Gaetz said this wasn't aimed specifically at the woman he observed.

"My point is we've grown our entitlement programs for people who are spending money on frivolities," he said.

Like his tweets, Gaetz stands behind his "comma comment." He said his constituents don't want him to divorce his emotions from his stated views as a lawmaker.

"That's what you get when you have a legislative body of human beings rather than robots," Gaetz said. "People forgive you when you're genuine."