Unlike most state lawmakers — who are far better known in Tallahassee than they are back in districts that elected them — state Rep. Matt Gaetz is a significant public figure in his Panhandle hometown.
If his style of debate on the House floor didn’t already tip you off, the Shalimar Republican’s recent Tweet directed at Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner and state Sen. Dwight Bullard implying the two have questionable literacy skills make it pretty plain that, at the very least, Baby Gaetz can be rude around the Capitol at the expense of others.
But did you know he’s got something of a reputation for that back home, too?
In November, Gaetz got into an Internet dust-up with Steven Menchel, a marginal figure in Okaloosa County politics, in the comments of the Northwest Florida Daily News website.
The article focused on Gaetz’s “Accountability Okaloosa” policy agenda, a list of local projects and goals Gaetz circulated last year as part of an attempt to become a major player in the area’s municipal affairs.
Gaetz told the paper he expects city and county officials to get on board lest they end up on his bad side: “I think we will find the remainder, those who don’t want to be held accountable, can explain that to the public at the next election,” said Gaetz, ominously.
Menchel, a retired civil servant and dabbler in local politics, wondered aloud about one particular initiative that was left off Gaetz’s list, which was approved online by a nonscientific poll.
“Why isn’t the 3.5 million dollar [Department of Juvenile Justice] refund to Okaloosa County worthy of being on the list and attainable?” Menchel commented.
“Steve — That idea was posted on the website. It got even fewer votes than you did in your last two runs for public office,” was Gaetz’s uncalled-for reply.
He was certainly getting as good as he gave in the comments section, where one anonymous reader told Gaetz, “Congratulations Matt. You have now advanced yourself from the status of Pitiful Fool up a notch to Pathetic Bully Buffoon!”
“I guess I’ll have to update the name on my Christmas stocking :),” was his retort. Clever!
But anonymous commenters don’t seek to hold the public trust and the rightful scrutiny that comes with it. Gaetz has, and he ought to act like he respects that bright line.
Like Gaetz’s tweet of last week, the article and comments in question are still up today.
It may seem like a small thing, but it offers an instructive glance at what seems to be a larger pattern for “Not One Damn Comma” Gaetz, who burnished his reputation as an “aggressive ideologue” in the national press with his obstinate approach to the Stand Your Ground meetings he chaired in 2013, in the wake of George Zimmerman‘s infamous acquittal.
The back-and-forth with Menchel gained some traction in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area, where Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles included it in his periodic newsletter to constituents.
After explaining why he refused to sign what he called Gaetz’s Accountability Okaloosa “fraternity-style pledge cards,” Boyle rendered the moral of this story as this:
“I am a young guy and I have a lot to learn yet about the way the world works, but even I know this: Leaders, the good ones at least, don’t bully, they don’t belittle and they don’t demean those around them. Good leaders lead by example. Good leaders build consensus. Good leaders stick to the issues. Think what you will of Steve Menchel who twice ran unsuccessfully for Okaloosa County Sheriff, but his point was valid. And even if it wasn’t, did he deserve to receive an unsolicited personal insult hurled so publicly by one of his elected officials? I sure hope not.
“In life, there are times to lead and there are times to follow. I don’t mind following, not if that’s what it takes to get the job done, but I need a good leader first. So Representative, here’s the deal, you want me to follow? Then act like a leader. Focus on the issues and not the speakers. Don’t presume, as your cover letter indicated, that those who disagree with you are doing so because they dislike you, trust me, as elected officials we aren’t that important. And most of all, BE NICE!”