FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - The Florida Senate's new leader is a sharp-tongued orator and a throwback to when members of both major parties put aside ideological purity for the sake of getting things done.
Don Gaetz is a lifelong Republican, but his mentor as a high school debater was a liberal Democratic state lawmaker in his native North Dakota.
Gaetz, 65 and living in the Panhandle town with the made-for-TV name Niceville, later succeeded in business by partnering with another liberal. He also counts a Democratic colleague, Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, as a close friend.
"He's a conservative, but I don't think he's an ideologue," Sobel said. "He's an independent thinker. He's a practical guy and looks at the needs of the people."
Sobel has worked on legislation with Gaetz and she's one of three Democrats he's appointed to chair Senate committees.
When he reaches across the aisle, Gaetz said during an interview at a favorite local eatery in Fort Walton Beach, it's not because he thinks "bipartisanship is a warm, fuzzy thing."
"The best way to achieve real public policy is to have broad-based public policy," Gaetz explained.
That philosophy can put him at odds with the GOP's far-right including those who want states to "nullify" President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Gaetz emailed a tea party leader to say he favored President Andrew Jackson's approach when "nullifiers" threatened to burn down the White House over Jackson's opposition to states nullifying federal law.
Old Hickory told an aide to "shoot the first nullifier who touches the flag. And hang the rest," he wrote.
Gaetz said he didn't mean his missive was to be taken literally because, if so, he'd have to shoot his son, state Rep. Matt Gaetz. Father and son agree that Matt, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, is the more conservative of the two, but both said wife and mother Vicky Gaetz has them beat.
That leaves daughter Erin as the least conservative family member. She works for Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Pensacola, on his "Morning Joe" cable television show.
Gaetz credits his sense of fair play to his father, Jerry, and recently retired North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead.
Jerry Gaetz was the mayor of Rugby, N.D., when Sanstead was debate coach at Minot High School about 60 miles away. Minot's conservative school board spoke of firing Sanstead after the Democrat was elected to the North Dakota Legislature.
"Wayne Sanstead and Jerry Gaetz couldn't agree on anything, but my father thought it was morally wrong to prevent someone from serving in public office by strangling their livelihood," Gaetz recalled.
He said the board backed down after his father and others threatened to sue.
Sanstead, meanwhile, helped Rugby's high school form a debate team. Gaetz was his star pupil.
"I was a Democratic legislator and he leaned Republican," Sanstead said. "That didn't make any difference. In those days we supported each other."
Jerry Gaetz, a local railway manager, also was running for lieutenant governor and went to the Republican state convention in 1964 to seek the party's endorsement. He refused to let his son, then 16, skip school to go along, but Gaetz said he played hooky, anyway, and watched on television.
A couple minutes after speaking, his father suffered a fatal heart attack.
"I had the strange and painful experience of watching my father die on television," Gaetz said. "My mother always believed that politics killed my father, but it had the opposite effect on me, and I've always felt that I was finishing my father's work."
Sanstead, later elected lieutenant governor before serving 28 years as school superintendent, remained in touch with Gaetz and they regularly contributed to each other's campaigns.
Until finally disintegrating, Gaetz kept the last note he got from his father in his wallet. It was a permission slip to travel to Minot on Saturdays so Sanstead could coach him.
Gaetz attended Concordia College on a debate scholarship and helped the Lutheran school in Moorhead, Minn., win a national championship. He was elected student body president while majoring in political science and religion.
His first post-college job was editing a weekly newspaper in North Dakota. That led to a public relations and advertising gig in Minneapolis and then to hospital management jobs in Green Bay, Wis., and Jacksonville, before he co-founded a hospice company in Miami.
Gaetz's partners in VITAS Innovative Hospice Care were the Rev. Hugh Westbrook, a Democratic activist, and Esther Colliflower, a nurse. Starting with an $1,800 investment, they turned VITAS into the largest company of its kind before selling it for millions. That's made Gaetz one of the Legislature's wealthiest members with a net worth of about $25 million.
The family then moved to Okaloosa County in the Panhandle where Vicky grew up. She's partially paralyzed due to spinal bleeding that occurred while she was pregnant with Erin.
Gaetz became incensed when Matt told him his school bus was picking up children from neighboring Walton County. School officials denied it, but Gaetz followed buses to prove them wrong. He wrote columns about it in a weekly newspaper and then ran for the school board, easily winning election.
He then helped lead efforts to pass a penny-per-dollar local option sales tax to build classrooms, libraries and other school facilities. Okaloosa voters passed it in 1995.
When anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist years later asked Gaetz to sign his no-taxes pledge, the senator told him he couldn't "because I gave my home county the biggest tax increase at the time that it had ever had."
As a board member, Gaetz drew national media attention, death threats and opposition from television evangelist Pat Robertson when he sought the removal of an assistant principal who was using his position to convert staffers and students to his conservative Christian religious views.
Gaetz subsequently was elected as Okaloosa's school superintendent and enthusiastically adopted then-Gov. Jeb Bush's school accountability agenda to improve student test scores.
He's earned a reputation as a no-holds-barred debater since his election to the Senate in 2006. While chairing a committee meeting, Gaetz once told the then-State University System chancellor he was "dismissed" after the educator spoke against legislation Gaetz supported.
As Senate president, though, Gaetz can't debate, serve on committees or file bills.
"He's sort of wandering around the capitol looking for things to do," son Matt said.
Gaetz admitted to some frustration, but noted he'll be debating again for the last half of his four-year Senate term when his two-year presidency is over.
With few exceptions, Gaetz makes no apologies for his rough-and-tumble debating style.
"Hard-hitting debate sands the rough edges off public policy," Gaetz said. "I don't believe in false civility. I believe in sharp, lively passionate debate, but I believe you leave it on the floor."
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