Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida firebrand under a federal investigation for the alleged sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, has sparked a local furor over his upcoming appearance at a high school in Okaloosa County, Florida, where he is expected to speak directly with minors about their career aspirations in the military.
Most of the uproar appears to be led by Women Against Matt Gaetz, a 10,000-strong Facebook group of (mostly) women who have “had enough of Congressman Matt Gaetz and his offensive aggression toward women,” and are speaking out against Gaetz’s Tuesday visit at Niceville High School, a top-performing high school in the district. While a grand jury is reportedly investigating allegations of sex trafficking a minor, “it is just inappropriate for a sitting United States congressman to engage with young people, especially young women,” said Samantha Herring, the founder of Women Against Matt Gaetz. Per Herring, as of last week, 80% of the group’s members lived in Gaetz’s congressional district. The group plans to call on Gaetz’s colleagues in Congress to have the conservative lawmaker “step aside” until the “investigation is completed.”
The Justice Department is currently investigating Gaetz for three alleged crimes: paying women for sex, having a sexual relationship with a minor, and for paying that minor to travel with him across state lines (which would be in violation of sex trafficking laws). Thus far, no charges have been brought against Gaetz, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. However, Joel Greenberg, Gaetz’s apparent “wingman,” last year admitted to the sex trafficking of a minor and has been cooperating with investigators leading the Gaetz probe as part of a plea deal.
The Niceville High School’s Facebook page says the event, dubbed an “Academy Night,” is “an opportunity for high school students to speak directly with Congressman Gaetz.” According to Gaetz’s website, the Republican congressman will be hosting at least one other Academy Night early in the fall semester. Academy Nights are hosted for students interested in attending the Naval, Military, Air Force, or Merchant Marine academies. Applications for the Naval Academy, for example, require a nomination from an “official source,” which can be a U.S. representative from the applicant’s district. Each representative has a limited number of nominations to dole out.
Still, Cara Marion, who is running for Okaloosa County school board, suggested that Gaetz could have just sent an aide. His decision to come in-person to the event was “very odd,” she said. “My son went through the process in Colorado in the Denver area. Never once did he meet with his congressman or senator that he interviewed with.”
The lawmaker does have personal connections to the school and district; Don Gaetz, Matt Gaetz’s father, was formerly the district’s superintendent; Matt Gaetz is also an alumnus of Niceville High School, and at one point the conservative lawmaker even publicly recognized his friendship with current superintendent Marcus Chambers via Twitter. Chambers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Gaetz dismissed local concerns about the lawmaker’s plans to visit schools: “Congressman Gaetz has been met by supportive crowds in the hundreds this past week,” they told Vanity Fair. “Not a single person has accused Congressman Gaetz of wrongdoing. The same could not be said for Joe Biden. A handful of sour Woketopians clinging to debunked lies won’t stop Congressman Gaetz from promoting military academy service to Northwest Florida families.”
A local resident, Karen, whose niece is in the Okaloosa County school system, and who asked for anonymity because she lives in a very conservative area, was frustrated with what she saw as a double standard; if a teacher was found sleeping with a student, and there was an ongoing investigation, they’d be placed on administrative leave. Gaetz, meanwhile, is conducting business as usual—something she says she has raised with the superintendent.