The fight over redistricting descended into a personal war of words between two prominent senators Wednesday, as the pair traded accusations of bullying and violating the state's constitutional ban on political gerrymandering.
The verbal brawl began when former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, used an unusual procedural move to take the floor and blast Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for publicly criticizing Gaetz's conduct during the 2012 redistricting process.
Gaetz chaired the Senate Reapportionment Committee when it came up with a map for the state's 40 Senate districts that year. Lawmakers have returned to Tallahassee for a special session to redraw the lines after settling a legal challenge to the 2012 map.
Latvala has publicly suggested that Gaetz apologize for his role in the unwinding of the Senate map, comments that provoked the 17-minute rebuke Wednesday from Gaetz on the floor. Latvala, who was preparing for an event elsewhere in the state, had left the chamber before Gaetz's remarks began.
"I take no satisfaction from this exchange," Gaetz said. "I did not seek it. But when a bully throws a sucker punch, you hit back and never give in."
In a brief telephone interview after Gaetz's remarks, Latvala dismissed accusations that he was partially to blame for the situation the Senate finds itself in. He also took his own shots at Gaetz.
"Take a secret-ballot vote on who's the biggest bully --- me or him," he responded.
The relationship between the Gaetz and Latvala families has long been prickly. Both men have sons in the House --- Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater --- who have feuded on Twitter, with the elder Latvala sometimes chiming in.
The feuding also comes amid a nasty battle to become Senate president after the 2016 elections. Latvala is competing with Stuart Republican Joe Negron, who has been an ally of Gaetz.
The redistricting fight between Gaetz and Latvala has its roots in the second version of a Senate map, which was drawn in the spring of 2012. An earlier version was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court for violating the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" amendments, approved by voters in 2010. The court settlement this year set aside the second version of the map.
In his speech Wednesday, Gaetz pointed out that Latvala's fingerprints were on the second map, given an amendment approved on the Senate floor that changed four districts in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area. The amendment prevented now-Sens. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, from having to run against each other.
At the time, both were believed to be supporting Latvala in his bid for the Senate presidency. Galvano, who now chairs the Senate Reapportionment Committee, has since thrown his support behind Negron.
Gaetz voted for Latvala's amendment.
Gaetz admitted Wednesday to making mistakes during the 2012 process. He said he should have demanded the swearing-in of anyone who spoke before the reapportionment committee or who proposed maps. The legal fight over redistricting has shown that Republican political operatives funneled proposed maps into the public comment process through straw men, at least one of whom didn't know his name was being used.
"They have every right to offer testimony or make proposals on any matter," Gaetz said of the consultants. "But especially in the case of redistricting and in light of the Fair Districts amendments, they should not have sailed under false flags. I should have put them under oath. And I didn't."
He added later: "I am sorry for my mistakes. Senator Latvala should be sorry for his."
But in the interview, Latvala said Gaetz had initially tried to draw Grimsley into the same district as Galvano as punishment for Grimsley not supporting Gaetz on a legislative issue. Latvala also highlighted the discovery through the legal fights that Gaetz, for example, secretly met with then-House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"He's just trying to deflect the blame that I've put on him for costing the taxpayers $11 million," Latvala said, alluding to the costs of litigation and the redistricting process.
With Latvala out of the chamber Wednesday, one of his allies called on Gaetz to take back some of his comments.
"Quite candidly, I think it is beneath the dignity of this institution when one member stands on this floor and labels another member as a bully," said Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who has supported Latvala in his bid for the Senate presidency.
Speaking with reporters after the conflict on the floor, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wouldn't directly answer a question about whether Gaetz's remarks were inappropriate.
"We'll let the members decide," Gardiner said. "I'm focused on trying to get this map done and going home."