Don Gaetz

Release date:
Dec 06, 2016

Donald J. "Don" Gaetz (born January 22, 1948) is a Republican politician who served as a member of the Florida State Senate from 2006 to 2016, representing parts of Northwest Florida. He was Senate President from 2012 to 2014. His son is politician Matt Gaetz.


Gaetz was born in Rugby, North Dakota, to Jerry Gaetz, a former mayor of the city and a state legislator. Jerry Gaetz was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota at the 1964 North Dakota Republican Party state convention, where he died of a heart attack while his son watched television coverage of the event.

Don Gaetz attended Concordia College, graduating with his bachelor's degree in religion and political science, and then Troy State University, receiving his Master of Public Administration in education before moving to the state of Florida in 1978. He worked in Jacksonville as a hospital administrator, and lobbied the legislature to create hospice care programs for the dying. In 1983, Gaetz founded VITAS Healthcare Corporation with a group of investors, which he later sold for nearly half a billion dollars in 2004.

In 2013, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against VITAS for allegedly committing Medicare fraud since 2002, when Gaetz still worked at the company, though Gaetz denied any role in any wrongdoing that occurred. His son, Matt Gaetz, currently serves as a member of the Florida House of Representatives.

Okaloosa County School Board

In 1994, Gaetz ran for the Okaloosa County School Board, receiving the Republican nomination and then challenging incumbent School Board Member Jean Long, the Democratic nominee, and Susan Matuska, the Libertarian nominee, in the general election. He ended up winning in a landslide, receiving 69% of the vote to Long's 20% and Matuska's 11%. During his first term, Gaetz campaigned for a one cent sales tax to fund school construction and renovation, which was easily approved by the county's voters in a 1995 special election. In 1997, he called for an investigation into the conduct of a vice-principal at Niceville High School, where his son went to school, after reports surfaced of the vice-principal promoting his religious beliefs while working at the school. Following his call for an investigation, which he said was warranted by the vice-principal's attempts "to make people who didn't share his views feel as though they were somehow second-class Christians or that they were in danger of damnation," he said, "I have received death threats from individuals who mistakenly believe the way to advance their own particular brand of Christianity is to threaten the life of someone who is a Christian not of their particular kind." When he ran for re-election in 1998, he was opposed by only Republican candidate James Campbell, whom he defeated in an open primary with 67% of the vote.

Gaetz opted to run for Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools in 2000, and faced David Morgan, the principal of Niceville High School, in the Republican primary. He defeated Morgan handily, winning 68% of the vote and advancing to the general election, where he was opposed by William Lynch, the Democratic nominee, and John Hughes, an independent candidate. Neither Lynch nor Hughes posed a significant challenge to Gaetz, and he won his first term with 75% of the vote to Lynch's 18% and Hughes' 7%. He was unopposed for re-election in 2004. During his time as Superintendent, the Okaloosa County School District increased from twenty-seventh in the state in student performance to first.

Florida Senate

When incumbent State Senator Charlie Clary was unable to seek re-election in 2006 due to term limits, Gaetz ran to succeed him in the 4th District, which stretched from Pensacola to Panama City, including parts of southern Bay County, Escambia County, Okaloosa County, Santa Rosa County, and Walton County. He was initially set to face State Representative Holly Benson in the Republican primary, but Benson ultimately declined to run, and Gaetz won the nomination, and then the general election, unopposed.

During his first term in the Senate, he served as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee and attracted headlines when he attacked a Florida Department of Education official over a teacher bonus initiative. Gaetz sponsored legislation that would have expanded Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test material to include social studies, broadened the group of people determining state standards, granted honors diplomas to high-achieving test takers, and taught world languages in elementary schools. He was re-elected without opposition in 2010.

In 2012, following the reconfiguration of the state's legislative districts, Gaetz was drawn into the 1st District, which included much of the territory that he had previously represented but dropped the extension into Pensacola for an inclusion of Holmes County, Jackson County, and Washington County. He won renomination uncontested, and in the general election, faced independent candidate Richard Harrison. Gaetz campaigned on his grassroots efforts to introduce himself to potentially new constituents in the district and attacked his opponent for his "misunderstanding of the legislative process." Ultimately, Gaetz was re-elected in a landslide, winning 74% of the vote to Harrison's 26%.

Gaetz served as President of the Florida Senate from 2012-14.

Gaetz defending the 2nd Amendment

On February 23, 2016 USF Executive Director and NRA Past President Marion P. Hammer sent a "Florida Alert!" highlighting Republican Senator Don Gaetz open letter to Miguel de la Portilla criticizing him of “Put simply, Senator Diaz de la Portilla used his power as a committee chairman to deny senators and the public the opportunity even to discuss the issue of open carry and vote for or against the bill".

Gaetz has received a 100% rating from the National Rifle Association.