By Jim Turner and Tristan Wood
TALLAHASSEE — Former state Senate President Don Gaetz is seeking a return to the Legislature as his son makes waves in Washington, D.C.
Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who served in the Senate from 2006 to 2016, including as president during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions, said Monday he was filing paperwork to run next year in the Panhandle’s Senate District 1.
“I can tell you that there is no sideline in the Senate,” Gaetz, a former hospice executive and Okaloosa County schools superintendent, said. “There are 40 members, and the way the Senate operates any one of those 40 members can make a significant contribution. And any one of those 40 members can stand in the way of bad legislation. So, I want to be the best freshman senator I can be.”
Former state Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, planned to run for the seat and, as of June 30, had raised $161,000 and put $200,000 of his own money into the campaign. But White agreed to step aside for Gaetz.
“Don Gaetz is a living legend for good reason,” White said. “His record speaks for itself. He has my full support, and I will do what I can to secure his victory next November.”
Gaetz, 75 of Niceville, said he hadn’t contemplated a legislative run until a few weeks ago, when a Pensacola radio host asked him about “rumors” of a 2024 candidacy. Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, can’t run again in the district because of term limits. “I said, I’ll listen, but I’m not trying to run,” Gaetz said. He said he quickly received support from people in the district, a Republican stronghold made up of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and part of Okaloosa County.
Since leaving the Senate, Gaetz has had roles such as serving on the state Commission on Ethics and chairing Triumph Gulf Coast, which distributes BP settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The Gaetz name has drawn heavy attention nationally as Gaetz’s son, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has battled with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Matt Gaetz was highly critical of McCarthy this weekend for working with Democrats to pass a stopgap bill to avoid a federal-government shutdown.
Matt Gaetz, a former state House member, also is widely rumored to be considering a run for Florida governor in 2026. Don Gaetz said his son is focused on budget issues and getting a vote on term limits in Congress, not a run for Florida governor. “He and I talk almost every day, and he has assured me that that’s what he’s focused on,” Don Gaetz said.
No other candidates have emerged for the state Senate seat, but Don Gaetz said he anticipates he will face competition. Don Gaetz faced only one opponent, an unaffiliated candidate, in his earlier Senate runs.
“The good thing is, I love to campaign. My family loves to campaign. We like to go door-to-door. We’re almost sick in our love for campaigning,” Gaetz said. “Matt has to run for reelection to the Congress in 2024. And so once again, we may have father and son knocking on doors together, just like we did when Matt was in the state House and I was in the state Senate.”
Gaetz’ father, Jerry, was mayor of the prairie town of Rugby, N.D., near the Canadian border. Don Gaetz watched on television as his father, a candidate for lieutenant governor, died of a heart attack during the 1964 North Dakota Republican Party state convention.
— Tristan Wood is a reporter for City & State Florida, a sister publication of The News Service of Florida.