FORT WALTON BEACH — U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz paid a visit to Okaloosa County on Saturday for his fourth “Open Gaetz Day.” The Daily News was invited to tag along on the whirlwind tour, which started on Brooks Street at KC’s Sandbar and ended nearby at Fort Walton Landing during the Latin Salsa Festival.
Here’s a diary of the day spent with the congressman and his staff, who worked furiously behind the scenes to keep Gaetz’s visit on track and on time.
8:45 a.m.: Gaetz arrives to find more than 100 people at the first stop on his tour, an outdoor town hall meeting. Many folks are sporting red, white and blue, with a sizable contingent wearing clothing that indicates support for President Donald Trump. A small but vocal group wave signs that express opposition to Gaetz’s stated goal to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. In a gesture that will be repeated multiple times throughout the day, Gaetz poses for photos with several constituents.
9:05 a.m.: Gaetz, dressed in khakis, a blue blazer and no tie, makes his way to a microphone set up near the front of the crowd. After a rendition of the national anthem by the Fort Walton Beach Community Chorus, he leads the attendees in a moment of silence in honor of U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was shot Thursday during a Republican congressional baseball team practice. He then thanks the members of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Walton Beach Police Department who are standing vigil at both entrances, leading to a big round of applause.
9:10 a.m.: In an effort to give as many people as possible an opportunity to ask questions, the congressman’s staff hands out “raffle” tickets to people as they arrive. Right out of the gate, a member of the “Tuesday Group” — a coalition of progressive voters who visit Gaetz’s Pensacola district office every week — asks him what he thinks of the investigation into possible Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election. While he maintains that the situation should not be Congress’ first priority, he says emphatically that “Director Mueller’s investigation should be allowed to proceed independently and unfettered.”
About 80 percent of the remaining 17 questions take a more conservative slant, with constituents asking about everything from gun control, repealing Obamacare, the EPA, terrorism, reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs, climate change and education. While factions in the audience would occasionally shout their disapproval of a particular question or questioner, the mood for the most part is respectful.
The two biggest rounds of applause come when Gaetz argues for increased military spending and requiring childless, able-bodied adults to work (or volunteer) in order to receive public assistance.
10:20 a.m.: In a scene that will play out throughout the day, Gaetz’s staff attempts to usher him toward an SUV waiting to take him to his next stop. It’s a difficult task, as crowds of people approach the congressman to ask for a photo or bend his ear about a pet cause.
10:30 a.m.: With Gaetz safely ensconced in the back seat, the SUV’s driver attempts to pull away, only to be stopped by a man dressed in a leather vest emblazoned with “Bikers for Trump.” Gaetz opens the door and chats for a moment.
10:35 a.m.: On the way to a stop at Hawthorne House assisted living facility at the Air Force Enlisted Village, Gaetz repeats a statement he made during the town hall in which he parted company with other conservatives who have questioned the idea of climate change and the role man has played in it.
“History is not going to look too kindly on people who ignore thermometers,” he says. “Of course the planet is warming. Of course man is playing a role. I just don’t think we should try to regulate our way out of the problem. I think we should innovate our way out of it.”
10:52 a.m.: The SUV rolls up in front of Hawthorne House. After greeting a group of visitors downstairs, he heads upstairs where a half dozen or so residents are waiting for lunch to be served. He chats for a moment with each resident, including a 94-year-old former school teacher.
11:18 a.m.: It’s back to the SUV, where members of his staff offer Gaetz a variety of items: cough drops, a bottle of Diet Pepsi, a granola bar and a briefing book for the next stop.
“This is our fourth Open Gaetz Day, so we’ve worked out the kinks,” Communications Director Kavontae Smalls says with a laugh.
11:30 a.m.: The next stop is Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, where doctors and administrators meet with Gaetz to discuss issues such as access to care and health care for reform. The CEO proudly leads Gaetz on a tour of the hospital’s new Level 2 trauma center, which he helped secure funding for when he was in the Florida Legislature. There, he meets a young paramedic whose life was saved at the center after he was hit by a vehicle.
“How many lives have you saved since you’ve become a paramedic?” Wes Boles, the director of the trauma center, asks the young man. “The fact that this trauma center is here has a ripple effect on the community. Congressman, you’ve helped to save the lives of people you’ll never meet.”
12:56 p.m.: After a quick tour of the Ambulatory Surgery Center next to the hospital, the SUV pulls up to the The ARC of the Emerald Coast Aquatic Center, where developmentally disabled clients and their supporters wait to show off their new swimming pool. By now, the contingent is running behind schedule, and staff members suggest he cut the visit to The ARC short. Gaetz negotiates, offering to cut his lunch short to have more time at the center.
2:44 p.m.: After lunch with some elected officials at Clemenza’s at Uptown Station, Gaetz and his entourage walk to the Doolittle Institute to meet with more than 100 military and defense industry leaders. Before the formal presentation, however, he is asked to take part in the kind of ceremonies members of Congress often find themselves doing: cutting a large red, white and blue cake celebrating the Army’s 242nd birthday using a large, antique sword.
3:55 p.m.: After maneuvering through heavy traffic, Gaetz and company arrive at Fort Walton Landing, where the congressman is scheduled to give a speech at the Latin Salsa Festival. He makes his way through the large crowd to a gazebo, where the event’s organizers eagerly pose for photos with him. After one of his staffers notes that this is the first Open Gaetz Day in which he hasn’t taken any selfies, he proceeds to pose for several.
4:05 p.m.: Gaetz takes the stage. After greeting the crowd in Spanish, he concedes, “This is no time for political speeches.” His remarks take less than two minutes.
4:15 p.m.: His staffers look exhausted, but Gaetz continues to pose for photos. “I love this stuff,” he says. “This is what Open Gaetz Day is all about.”