By Jeremy Morrison
It was a hot, sticky first day of June afternoon, and Rep. Matt Gaetz wasn’t about to let such deliciously illustrative weather go without working it up into political poetry to close out his Pensacola town hall event.
“It’s a little hot in here; it’s even hotter in Washington,” Gaetz said. “They’re turning up the heat on the president, and they’re turning up the heat on me too, because in a system that tries to silence people who speak out and who are different, there are consequences when you treat the office the way I do.”
True enough. One of those consequences—an ever-present contingent of protesters—could be heard each time the front door to the Brew Ha Ha restaurant opened. Another consequence, in the form of a thrown drink, would hit Gaetz en route to the black Suburban parked out front.
But such theatrics were a bit of a distracting desert following the meat of the Northwest Florida congressman’s local event, which consisted of more than an hour of raucous back-and-forth between the outspoken legislator and constituents from across the political spectrum on topics ranging from immigration and the environment to arming teachers and the prospects that the Russia investigation is actually a “palace coup.”
Gabbing with Gaetz
In the couple of years since Rep. Gaetz went to Washington D.C., he has made a name for himself as a loud, brash, ultra-conservative legislator and ardent defender of President Donald Trump. He enjoys frequent sit-ins on Fox News and was dubbed by the New York Times as “a congressman liberals love to loathe.”
But Gaetz is a little more complicated than the cartoon version of himself he has helped to popularize, as demonstrated during his June 1 Pensacola leg of his “Won’t Back Down” town hall tour. Sure, he pushes the notion of a palace coup, but he also warns of the dangers of inaction when it comes to climate change. And, yeah, he tried to kick a grieving father of a Parkland, Fla., student out of a congressional hearing on gun violence and contends that Mexican drug cartels are flooding the border in an effort to overwhelm the country’s immigration system, but he also argues against the excesses of American militarism.
Here’s a sampling of Rep. Gaetz’s comments during the town hall’s Q&A format with attendees, who engaged the legislator on a wide range of subjects.
More than a few folks at Gaetz’s town hall were interested in the investigation concerning President Trump and Russia, or rather the origins of that investigation, echoing the president’s own “investigate the investigators” rhetoric. Gaetz was more than happy to oblige this line of thought, one he has pushed for a while.
“I am proud that for the last 22 months, I’ve been telling the American people the truth,” Gaetz said, “that Donald Trump did not collude with Russia, that the campaign was not engaged as an agency of a foreign power, that this was truly a witch hunt. And now we are turning the tables, we are investigating the investigators and we will hold the people accountable that were working to tear this country apart.”
Gaetz would return repeatedly to this topic, lambasting Jeff Session’s turn as attorney general, bemoaning how the FBI “paved a yellow brick road for Hillary Clinton” and how people are “trying to stir up fake lies from Russians about Donald Trump.” He painted a picture popular in right-wing conspiracy circles that casts the country’s intelligence agencies as Brutus to Trump’s Caesar and promised retribution.
“That is what a coup is. That is what treason looks like, and that is what we’re gonna find out with Attorney General Barr, who is going to turn the tables on the people who are trying to destroy our country,” Gaetz said.
Surrender on the Beach
One local issue that came up during the town hall concerned Pensacola Beach and Gaetz’s attempt to pass a bill which opponents argued placed the beach in private hands. The congressman acknowledged the results of a recently passed a referendum that affirmed voters’ desire to ensure the beach remained public and said that while he stood behind his initial case for changes at the beach, he also recognized the issue was dead.
“I have lost this argument with the people of this district,” Gaetz said. “I know that and I have no intention of refiling this legislation because I do not believe it will get a hearing in the Senate, and I do not believe that I have been successful at convincing people that double-taxing folks on the beach is unfair, and so, you know, you win some, you lose some.”
Climate of Environmental Politics
Breaking with some of his GOP cohorts, Rep. Gaetz has adopted a position on climate change that makes him appear as a tree-hugging hippie in contrast.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t.”
But where progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) are pushing a philosophy that focuses on governmental measures—such as regulatory efforts—to reign in carbon emissions, Gaetz prefers to address the issue from another direction— “My theory is that it’s not regulation; it’s innovation.”
After suggesting that the country focus on things like creating a more efficient electric grid, the representative concluded that the country probably wasn’t ready to take too bold an action to address climate change.
“My sadness is, we’re kinda not there yet, because we’ve got too many people that deny the obvious science of climate change,” Gaetz said. “And I’ve got too many of my fellow Republicans that say, ‘We don’t even want to start talking about what bills because we don’t agree with your philosophy; we don’t agree with your perception of the facts.”
While he believes that President Trump is in the clear when it comes to all things Russia—“I think the country is a little over this”—Gaetz said he expects Democrats to go for impeachment.
“I intend to make the case that our president was falsely accused and that his reactions to those accusations were totally lawful and legal at all times,” Gaetz said.
After members of the town hall audience suggested that Mexico is “trying to subvert us by sending out all these people here that are gonna end up voting Democrat,” Rep. Gaetz suggested that, indeed, Mexico was being complicit in allowing immigrants from countries farther south to flow through and that the drug cartels were slipping “bad hombres” into the mix.
Gaetz said the president’s recent announcement of increased tariffs on Mexican-made goods might do the trick and also pushed for the construction of a wall along the southern border.
The representative also gave a shout-out to Florida’s recent passage of a bill outlawing so-called sanctuary cities—“Well, the new law in Florida, passed in the last legislative session, says that if any local official upholds a sanctuary policy, they will hear from our governor two of Donald Trump’s favorite words, ‘You’re fired.’”
Rep. Gaetz opened his town hall event by welcoming a spirited debate with his constituents.
“Not every single person here may hold the same position as me, and that’s OK, because a sign of a healthy democracy is the ability to come out and share your views and share your thoughts and tell your member of Congress exactly what you think about him,” Gaetz said. “That’s a great thing.”
While sharing opposing views and thoughts is fine in a healthy democracy, sharing a drink—or, rather, throwing a drink—is apparently not. Upon exiting the town hall event, Rep. Gaetz was targeted with a cup of red liquid. The assault-via-beverage mirrors a trend known as “milkshaking.”
After the congressman hopped in his Suburban and left, Pensacola Police officers detained the alleged suspect in a parking lot across the street. They arrested Amanda Kondrat’yev, who ran against Gaetz for his congressional seat in 2016. Kondrat’yev faces simple battery charges, a misdemeanor, which carries a penalty ranging from a fine up to a year in jail.