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Jazz 91.9 WCLK | Membership Matters

Jeered in Washington by his fellow Republicans, Rep. Matt Gaetz gets cheers back home

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., appears before the House Rules Committee at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 22. Gaetz introduced a Motion to Vacate House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that led to the first ouster of a sitting Speaker in American history.
J. Scott Applewhite
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AP
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., appears before the House Rules Committee at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 22. Gaetz introduced a Motion to Vacate House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that led to the first ouster of a sitting Speaker in American history.

Updated October 7, 2023 at 2:25 PM ET

With the historic votein the House of Representatives that removed Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his post atop the chamber, one particular Republican rose to national attention for his role as Congressional disruptor: Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida

After leading the group of hardline Republicans who fought against funding the government and blasted McCarthy for the deal he did to avert a government shutdown, Gaetz delivered a Motion to Vacate, the procedural resolution that can remove a speaker from that position.

But even after the vote and amid searing critique from his fellow Republicans, Gaetz remained defiant.

"I think that this represents the ripping off of the band-aid and that's what we have to do to get back on track," he told reporters in front of the Capitol shortly after Tuesday's vote.

That's a position that is not widely shared in his party, but in his congressional district in northwest Florida, it's a completely different story.

In this file photo, former Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, R, left, hugs his son, former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R, after he was sworn in as the newest member of the house on April 15, 2010, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Steve Cannon / ASSOCIATED PRESS
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ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this file photo, former Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, R, left, hugs his son, former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R, after he was sworn in as the newest member of the house on April 15, 2010, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Matt Gaetz has been making political waves in Florida for a long time. The son of Florida's former Senate President, he was first elected to Florida's legislature 13 years ago at 31. Then, in 2016, he ran for - and won - a congressional seat.

Even before that though, he was cementing himself as a self-described 'firebrand,' also the title of his 2020 autobiography.

The chair of Florida's Democratic Party, Nikki Fried, remembers a young, high-school student already stirring things up. As a college student, she helped run a debate tournament that Gaetz appeared in.

"And he was actually kicked out of our student Congress for being disrespectful, disruptive, getting his way or the highway," she recalled. "So unfortunately, these are the patterns of who Matt Gaetz is."

After​ publication, a spokesperson for Gaetz disputed Fried's account, saying she is wrong and Gaetz has never competed in a student Congress event, nor has he been kicked out of a competition.

When reached for reaction, F​ried stood by her story.

Regardless of how he presented himself early in the formation of his political identity, his constituents don't seem to mind the role he plays now. Gaetz's Congressional district on Florida's panhandle is one of the most Republican in the state. He easily won reelection every term since first going to Congress. Still, some conservative Republicans in his district, like Renee Johnmeyer say they began to think Gaetz was all talk and no action.

"I felt like it was a lot of word service," Johnmeyer recalled of her congressman's tenure in Congress, "that he was just saying things and not making things happen."

Johnmeyer is active in the Santa Rosa County Republican Party, right in the heart of Gaetz's district. At a local restaurant for a club meeting, she expressed skepticism about him, but said his actions this week have won him a lot of goodwill with her.

"To see him actually step up and out and do something that will move the party in a different direction, I was happy to see that," she said.

That was a sentiment echoed throughout the meeting.

"Before this happened I had mixed feelings," Sharon Hawthorne, another local Republican Party member, explained of Gaetz. "I liked some things that he did. I didn't like other things he did. But I love the fact that he took this stand for us."

"And I feel like this is the best thing that could have happened for Republicans, for Democrats and for America," Hawthorne said.

His own brand of Republican politics

Gaetz is no stranger to national media attention, though he often made headlines as more of a troll on Democrats, like when he wore a full gas mask on the floor of the House during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and Democrats' public health measures.

Gaetz also led an attempted breach on the secure facility where impeachment proceedings took place against former president Donald Trump during his first impeachment.

That changed at the beginning of the 118th Congress when Gaetz stood in opposition to Kevin McCarthy in his initial bid for the speakership. Ultimately, McCarthy stood through 15 rounds of voting before receiving enough votes to become speaker. Gaetz did not vote for him once.

An ally and supporter of Trump's, Gaetz firmly aligned himself with the former president during his time in office and has remained by his side since.

According to Adam Cayton, a political scientist at the University of West Florida, that style of politics plays well in today's GOP.

"[Gaetz is] combative, bombastic, conservative, doesn't shy away from very public conflict," Cayton explained. "So, he's tapping into the same strain of feeling that is propelling Donald Trump to the leadership of the Republican party."

In this Oct. 2019, file photo President Donald Trump, right, accompanied by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., left, arrive for Game 5 of the World Series baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
In this Oct. 2019, file photo President Donald Trump, right, accompanied by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., left, arrive for Game 5 of the World Series baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington.

Still, back home, Gaetz's constituents who cheered on his actions aren't sure it will actually pay off for him - or for them.

"It might be a risk for him. I'm glad he did it. In my view, the more Congress doesn't do anything, the better off Americans are," Patty Burke said. She's been local in GOP politics for more than 20 years and has followed Gaetz's career.

But, she's worried the Republican Party might now be seen as a party in disarray. Another Republican at the Santa Rosa County meeting, George Oedsma is less worried about his own party and more worried about the control Democrats still have in Washington.

"Republicans over many, many years, we're always told we have to compromise. But whenever we do, we get nothing and they get everything they want," Oedsma said. "It just seems like that over and over and over again."

As for whether Gaetz's actions will pay off?

"Ask me in a year from now and I might be able to tell you," he said.

So, what now?

Gaetz did not take McCarthy down with the intent of taking the job. He has made it clear that he has no interest in being speaker. It is unlikely he would have the votes to take the job as the polarizing figure in his party that he has become.

The House will need to choose its new leader before it can do any additional legislative business. But even with the 45-day continuing resolution to give Congress more time to fund the government, a potential shutdown is again, just around the corner.

Gaetz is unlikely to waver from his position on a conservative approach to funding the government. The first congressional district in Florida has more federal employees than any other district in the state and is home to a number of military installations, accounting for even more federal spending.

For retired Marine Stan Jandura, also attending the Santa Rosa County Republican Party meeting, that should not even be a consideration. He supports Gaetz's tactics on government spending and on ousting McCarthy.

"It's a colloquial term shutdown. It's not a real shutdown," Jandura said. "Government employees are still going to get their check once it opens back up. So, who does it hurt? It hurts the political party that is up there."

As for what Gaetz might do with his newfound notoriety, he is unlikely to face opposition at home in his heavily-Republican district, nor will he likely face a primary challenger as a moderate Republican would probably not fare as well.

There has been speculation that Gaetz might be eyeing the governor's mansion in Tallahassee, Fla., though he has said he has "no plans" to run for governor. Still, that election would not be until 2026 and there is precedent for a Gaetz-like candidate performing well statewide.

"It's worth remembering that our recent Governor was a Tea Party affiliated rightwing Republican with an anti-establishment brand," Adam Cayton, the political scientist at the University of West Florida said, speaking of current Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former three-term congressman.

For now, though, Gaetz seems laser focused on changing Congress. Because as he tweeted recently, "I know who I work for, and it's not the people in Washington D.C."

"It is the Americans who elected me to change Congress for the better," Gaetz said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.