Rep. Matt Gaetz took center stage in front of a semicircle of souped-up trucks wrapped in Trump-themed vinyl.
As the Florida Republican congressman and ardent ally of former President Donald Trump began to speak outside Largo’s Conservative Grounds coffee shop, he clung hard to the cues of the former president, whose image was plastered behind him.
“Mask mandates are stupid,” Gaetz started. “Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election,” he added to cheers.
On a “Florida Man Freedom Tour” stop, the 38-year-old representative contradicted the coronavirus guidance of leading medical experts and echoed disproven claims of election fraud.
The crowd of approximately 200 people seemed to agree with his every word and relished the chance to be with like minds.
Sarasota’s Heather Huddleston had “Trump won” painted on her nails. St. Petersburg resident and pro-Trump rapper Forgiato Blow — given name Kurt Jantz — showed off a thigh tattoo featuring the former president with face tats. Duane Schwingel from Chiefland rode around on a handleless Segway dressed as Uncle Sam, tufts of white facial hair included.
“People are just starving for the truth … any truth,” North Redington Beach’s Jan Scott said.
During his 32-minute speech, the congressman criticized “Big Pharma” companies for charging too much for medical drugs and said military leadership is discouraging service by forcing out conservative soldiers. He then alleged President Joe Biden wants to disarm gun owners and condemned Biden’s border control policy, as well as the U.S. Capitol Police’s plans to establish a field office in Tampa.
Gaetz also called Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a “sniveling twit” and said without evidence that Democrats are using the coronavirus to create socialism in America.
Early in the speech, two protesters who appeared to oppose Gaetz held up yellow banners that read “Lies” and were quickly moved to the road by security. A woman yelled through a bullhorn for the protesters — who appeared to be the only rally attendees, other than local media, wearing masks — to take off their face coverings.
Gaetz also took aim at coronavirus vaccines. Though the shots have been scientifically proven to dramatically limit the spread of the coronavirus and curtail the worst symptoms of COVID-19, Gaetz referred to them as “experimental vaccines” and argued the military should not mandate vaccination.
Some attendees took the vaccination criticism a step further.
“We know COVID is a lie,” said Largo resident Virginia Frizzle, who added that she is “a non-vaxxer.”
When he asked the crowd how many of them had been banned on “Big Tech” social media platforms, a volley of hands shot up.
Gaetz was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2010 and has represented Florida’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2017. He worked closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis during his gubernatorial run.
He launched the “Florida Man Freedom Tour” on Saturday with an earlier stop in Melbourne. The congressman has joined Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia for a national “America First Tour” throughout the summer, which included a first stop at The Villages. Three California venues canceled a Gaetz and Greene stop earlier this month. Greene was not present at the Largo rally.
After speaking, Gaetz took selfies with supporters. Huddleston, a former nurse, walked up to Ginger Luckey, Gaetz’s fiancee, bearing gifts. She gave Luckey a shirt that read, “Fight Medical Tyranny, Say No 2 Big Pharma.” Luckey put it on right away.
Gaetz has recently faced controversy due to a federal investigation into alleged sexual improprieties and alleged corruption.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz paid for sex and had sex with a 17-year-old girl, The New York Times reported in April. The federal investigation expanded to examine whether Gaetz took gifts in exchange for political favors tied to medical marijuana policy while serving in the Florida Legislature, the Associated Press reported in May.
Gaetz ally Joel Greenberg, a key figure in the investigation, struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors in May. He has been charged with sex trafficking of a child, identity theft, stalking, wire fraud and conspiracy to bribe a public official.
Greenberg originally faced 33 federal charges, but prosecutors dropped the other 27 counts filed against him as part of an agreement that requires continued cooperation with an ongoing probe into sex trafficking.
Gaetz has vehemently denied the allegations against him and instead said he is the victim of a $25 million extortion scheme.
The House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Gaetz in April, citing reports of sexual and other misconduct, including the alleged sharing of inappropriate photos on the House floor.
Many supporters in attendance Saturday said they did not believe Gaetz has done anything wrong or were not aware of the federal investigation.
As he waved a Trump flag beside State Road 688, Madeira Beach resident Kevin Southern said he had “no idea” about it.
“Anybody can be accused of anything,” Southern said.
“They’re trying to frame him,” said Huddleston, who added that she had not heard much about the allegations because she has been banned across social media platforms.
At Dharma Kava Lounge, one storefront down from Conservative Grounds, the investigation into Gaetz was at the top of owner Andrew Apted’s mind.
“The sexual allegations and everything are just disgusting,” said Apted, who briefly ran in a Democratic primary for a Florida House of Representatives seat last year before withdrawing. “I don’t know how people like him get re-elected.”
The rally blocked his lounge’s parking and disrupted business, he said.
“Especially with this wave of COVID we’re dealing with, they’re just gathering in mass by the hundreds with no masks, and we know that most of them are probably unvaccinated,” Apted said.
Gaetz took a seat behind a replica of the Resolute desk in Conservative Ground’s model Oval Office after meeting with supporters. The shop is no Starbucks: guns hang on the walls, alongside Trump-themed art and framed photos of former president Ronald Reagan and Gov. DeSantis.
Conservative Grounds owner Cliff Gephart, who does not drink coffee, said he got the idea for the shop after reading that a Starbucks barista had asked a group of police officers to leave. Donald Trump Jr. has visited the cafe, and Gov. Ron DeSantis recently came by for some java, too.
“We’re trying to have a voice for the other side,” said Gephart, who helped organize a massive pro-Trump boat parade in Clearwater last August.