'Women Against Matt Gaetz' group gains traction in Florida's First Congressional District
NICEVILLE — A group calling itself "Women Against Matt Gaetz," formed less than two weeks ago, has already organized a successful protest and accumulated 5,800 Facebook followers.
Samantha Herring, Walton County's elected Democratic State Committeewoman, started the group and established the site after Gaetz made national news by branding female abortion rights protesters as "just disgusting" and launched into an insult-filled diatribe against them.
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"It was just a bridge too far. It's been too much for too long for some of us," Herring said. "We've decided to do something to get our voices heard."
The group bills itself as "women who have had enough of Congressman Matt Gaetz and his offensive aggression toward women. We are organizing to hold him accountable."
Herring said the Facebook page has attracted women from all over the country, but her research showed a resounding 79% signed on as followers are Northwest Floridians. And although Gaetz has garnered loyal support as a hard core Republican, Herring said support for the woman-focused anti-Gaetz effort cuts across party lines.
"There's a very bipartisan dislike of the man," Herring said. "And I'm not surprised to see the support for us here in the district. The district has had enough."
The coming out party for "Women Against Matt Gaetz" was July 30 when members gathered outside a Niceville building where Florida's First District congressman was holding a campaign rally.
"We had more people there than there were seeing Matt Gaetz," said Herring, although she could offer no verifiable evidence of the claim.
The organization has planned another protest for Saturday when Gaetz visits Pensacola, and some members have begun calling on the Okaloosa County School District to rethink Gaetz's scheduled 2022 Academy Night at Niceville High School.
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The event, to be held the evening of Aug. 16, "is an opportunity for high school students to speak directly with Congressman Gaetz and service academy representatives to learn more about the process for gaining admission to the U.S. Service Academies and receiving a Congressional Nomination," according to a release from the congressman's office.
Gaetz's recent comments, coupled with the fact he remains under investigation in a federal sex trafficking case with a 17-year-old girl as the victim, make him a poor role model for students, according to Mary Bell Lunsford, who addressed her concerns in a letter to Okaloosa County School Superintendent Marcus Chambers.
"Matt Gaetz, in my opinion, should not be the person to be there. His recent body shaming of a young lady on Twitter and his speech at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit cause me great anguish," Lunsford wrote. "To quote Matt, 'Why is it that women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? ... Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.' ”
Lunsford said she was disgusted by Gaetz's speech and further angered when, asked by a reporter what he would say to women offended by his words, he responded "be offended."
"There was no remorse, no caring, no empathy as to what his words, as a Congressman, would mean to women/girls," Lunsford's letter to Chambers said. "How can you, as Okaloosa County School superintendent, condone such female bashing by inviting him to an event for high school kids? How could a female student be comfortable asking him questions? Especially if she’s not depicted as one of his ‘Perfect 10' specimens of a female?"
In a statement, the School District said "we are pleased that Niceville High School has again been selected to promote service in U.S. Military Academies."
"This is an opportunity for students and parents to learn the specifics in applying to attend our nations military academies," the statement said. "Congressman Gaetz regularly discusses the importance of military service with our students."
The statement did not address Gaetz's recent comments or the federal investigation. It did say "political campaigning for or against candidates is not permitted at Academy Nights."
Karen Lynne White, a longtime resident of Fort Walton Beach who does not have children in Okaloosa County schools, said she had spoken directly to Chambers to let him know how she felt about Gaetz attending the Academy Night event.
"We teach kids that choices have repercussions. Gaetz laughed while insulting women during his recent speeches," she told the Northwest Florida Daily News. "Imagine being a high school girl who saw that having to ask him for a letter of recommendation into the Academy?
"I’m all for due process," White said. "But having minors in front of a man under active FBI investigation for sex trafficking is counter-intuitive. It sends mixed messages to the girls and the boys. Keep the veterans at the event, Gaetz didn’t even serve."
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Gaetz's office released a statement defending his record.
“After more than a year of smears and rumors, Congressman Matt Gaetz has not been charged with any wrongdoing whatsoever. Not a single person has even accused him of wrongdoing," it said.
The email message provided no indication Gaetz was reconsidering his decision to attend the Academy Night event.
"(Gaetz) has dutifully continued his work on behalf of Northwest Floridians, which includes service academy nominations," the email said. "Helping Northwest Floridians attend military service academies has been a highlight of Congressman Gaetz's career, and we will not allow a minority who oppose the congressman deprive students of their opportunity to do so.”
Herring said that as of Monday her organization had collected approximately $2,000 in donations and has a goal of erecting bright pink "Women Against Matt Gaetz" billboards across his district, which encompasses Okaloosa, Escambia, Santa Rosa and part of Walton counties.
The "Women Against Matt Gaetz" group is growing at a time when Gaetz finds himself embroiled in what could be the sternest election year test of his congressional career. One of his GOP primary opponent's, Mark Lombardo, has pledged to spend up to $1 million of his own money to defeat Gaetz.
A self-professed "America First" conservative, Lombardo, like "Women Against Matt Gaetz," has lashed out at the congressman for his comments regarding women.
In a television commercial, he calls Gaetz out not only for the federal sex trafficking investigation and the comments about abortion rights activists, but also for showing photos of nude women on the floor of Congress and other slights toward women.
"It doesn't further anyone's agenda when you degrade another human being," Lombardo said.
The winner of the Republican race pitting Gaetz, Lombardo and Pensacola businessman Greg Merk will likely face Walton County resident Peggy Schiller, a Democrat, in the November general election.
Another Democratic candidate, Rebekah Jones, was forced out of the race when a judge recently ruled she had not been registered as a Democrat for a full year prior to entering into the race. She has said she plans to appeal the ruling.
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The anti-Gaetz sentiment extends into the First Congressional District from outside Florida as well.
In late July, Mad Dog PAC, a proudly anti-Trump and anti-Gaetz group founded by Claude Taylor, placed a billboard reading "Indict Matt Gaetz Now" in Valparaiso near the east gate of Eglin Air Force Base. The sign was still in place Monday.
Gaetz brushed off Taylor as "an out-of-state former Clinton White House staffer."
Taylor is attacking Gaetz because "Congressman Gaetz is an effective fighter for the America First cause," the email from the congressman's office said.
"President Trump, who won the support of Florida's First Congressional District in both of his presidential campaigns, praised Congressman Gaetz as a 'courageous' fighter who 'loves Florida' during a major speech this past weekend," Gaetz's congressional office said.
“Congressman Gaetz has enjoyed rallying with hundreds of supporters at his recent events and is looking forward to winning re-election,” an email from the Gaetz campaign said.