Rep. Matt Gaetz is half of the only father-son team in the Florida Legislature. His father, of course, is Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz the younger was first elected to the Florida House in 2010 and was re-elected last year. An attorney, he chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee and was the prime mover behind the 2013 Timely Justice Act, which would speed up the post-conviction appeals process in death-penalty cases. It’s now awaiting action by Gov. Rick Scott.
Matt Gaetz is running for the state Senate seat his term-limited father will vacate in 2016.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Matt Gaetz:
Q: How have your parents affected your career? Is it true your mother is the most conservative member of the family?
GAETZ: (Laughs.) She is. My mother is a no-nonsense lady. And she is a lot like many of the constituents that Dad and I represent: She expects that government will do right by the people who are truly vulnerable, but that government won’t become a mechanism for an entitlement society. She holds us both to that.
My dad is my best friend, and my mother is the hero of my life. The most significant thing in our family is the celebration of my mother’s courage. You know, she has been in a wheelchair for 28 years. And she inspires us every day. Whenever Dad and I have a tough day or a rough moment, we always see our own sacrifices pale in comparison to the sacrifices she has made. It’s been the rock upon which our family has been built.
When my mother was pregnant with my little sister, I was three years old. And I remember coming down the stairs for breakfast one morning, and I saw my dad with tears in his eyes. He told me that there’d been a problem with Mom and with Erin, and that Mom couldn’t feel her legs anymore, and that she couldn’t walk. So I remember going to see my mother for the first time in the hospital, and I asked her, “Mom, I know you can’t walk, but can you run?” To a 3-year-old, that seemed like a reasonable question. She explained to me that while she couldn’t walk anymore, and wouldn’t be able to, that she’d spend the rest of her life running to help our family succeed.
She had a complication with her pregnancy. She had a blood clot in her spinal cord, and she made the decision that no matter what the pain or cost would be to her health, she was going to have my sister. And so I have a beautiful 28-year-old sister. And I have a mother that inspires everyone she meets.
Q: I gather your district approves of the Timely Justice Act. Do you expect Gov. Scott to sign it?
GAETZ: I think most Floridians would approve of the Timely Justice Act. It passed the Legislature with strong bipartisan support, and most Floridians probably would not accept the status quo. We have 155 people on Death Row today who have been there for longer than 20 years. We believe in due process, but we don’t believe in allowing a process to needlessly and frivolously delay justice.
I’m certain that the Timely Justice Act will become law. The governor’s office was involved in the drafting of this Timely Justice Act, and Gov. Scott has a history of supporting victims and being tough on crime.
This Timely Justice Act will be a modest down payment on the reforms that we need to ensure that victims’ families aren’t waiting decades for justice.
Q: You were one of just two lawmakers to oppose the bill Gov. Scott just vetoed, that would have given children of undocumented immigrants a way to get a driver’s license (three others later changed their votes to oppose it). He’s getting a lot of pushback on it – do you think it’s fair?
GAETZ: I think the governor did the right thing by vetoing legislation that would have given driver’s licenses to people who are not in our country legally. The most shocking thing about this legislation is that only two people voted no. I’m the (House) criminal justice chairman, and so my primary concern is the safety of Floridians. And driver’s licenses really open the doors to a lot of things in the country. And I would be concerned about people we didn’t know very much about getting on airplanes and having access that could put Floridians at risk.
Q: Your Senate race looks as if it will be hard-fought. Why do you think you’ll win?
GAETZ: Well, three things are certain in Panhandle politics: The sun rises in the east, it sets in the west, and the most conservative candidate wins. I think that gives me a pretty good shot.
(Rep.) Jimmy Patronis (R-Panama City) is a good friend of mine; he’s just not a good conservative. And we’ll have the opportunity over the next three years to make our respective cases to the voters of Senate District 1, and I think I have the stronger record to run on.
Q: Some call you a brash young legislator. Fair or not? If yes, would that change in the Senate?
GAETZ: Well, in the Florida House, I think I’ve been an independently-minded conservative. I don’t mind being one of only two or three legislators to vote against bills that raise taxes, grow government or put people at risk.
I think the Senate celebrates the independence of its members. And so I’m excited to have the opportunity to join a deliberative body, but also a body that allows members to vote their conscience, express their views and govern from the standpoints of their districts.