NICEVILLE — With a scheduled visit by Congressman Matt Gaetz to Niceville High School just hours away, a group of women who are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with held a Tuesday afternoon press conference to call upon him to stay away from young women.
Samantha Hope Herring, who at the beginning of August founded "Women Against Matt Gaetz," urged the now 10,000 members of the group to write letters to the Office of Congressional Ethics asking the body to suspend Gaetz from congressional duties related to minors while he is being investigated for allegedly having sex with a 17-year-old girl.
She provided templates for the letters to the 20 or so women, and some men, all decked out in pink, who showed up for the press conference, which was held in the parking lot of the Okaloosa County School District headquarters in Niceville.
Herring also called on Gaetz to "self police" and remove himself from the company of minors until the federal sex trafficking investigation has run its course.
"We would hope that Matt Gaetz would do the right thing and step aside," she said.
Gaetz has been living in the shadow of the federal investigation since March of 2021, when the New York Times broke a story examining his ties to former "wing man" Joel Greenburg, who has since pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor girl.
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Greenburg, the former tax collector in Seminole County, has reportedly cooperated with authorities and, while Gaetz has not been indicted, the feds have provided no indication that the investigation into his activities while traveling abroad with Greenburg and the 17-year-old has been closed.
Gaetz denies all wrongdoing and has not been charged.
Why Matt Gaetz is attending Niceville High School Academy Night
The event Gaetz was scheduled to attend Tuesday evening is called Academy Night. It is an annual event at which he and military service academy representatives are present to offer high school students an opportunity to speak to them directly about gaining admission.
In order to be admitted into a service academy a student must receive a congressional nomination.
Herring said her group had gathered at the School District's Administration Building, just down the road from Niceville High School, out of respect for the students and faculty at the school, knowing their actions would not prevent the convening of the Academy Night.
Herring said several members of the Women Against Matt Gaetz group have reached out to Okaloosa School Superintendent Marcus Chambers and members of the Okaloosa County School Board calling on them to address Gaetz's appearance at the 2022 Academy Night. The failure to receive an official response, she said, is what brought them out Tuesday.
"We did not want to do this. Clearly it had to be done," Herring said. "We're here because we're not being heard. A lot of people here worry about the good old boy network."
The district did, however, provide a lengthy comment when contacted Tuesday by the Northwest Florida Daily News.
The prepared statement from Superintendent Marcus Chambers noted that since 2017, the Okaloosa County School District has seen more than 100 students accept military academy nominations.
"We live in a community that proudly celebrates our nation's military and to have so many students interested in attending Military Academies across this country is a source of pride," the statement read.
Over the years, the district text message said, Gaetz has "consistently provided our students who are interested in attending our Military Academies the opportunity to learn more about the application process."
"I appreciate this opportunity for our students and the support and assistance in helping so many of them get accepted into our Military Academies," Chambers said in the statement.
In January of 2022, Gaetz recognized 35 students who earned Congressional Academy Nominations, Chambers said in the statement, adding "I am thankful for the Congressman's support in making those students dreams became a reality."
Herring said the local men and women who have signed in support of Women Against Matt Gaetz realize the importance of the military in Northwest Florida and support the idea of Academy Night. They worry, she said, about the optics of a congressman under investigation for a sexual crime against a minor being given access to teenage girls.
"We believe if our neighbor was under investigation for sex with a minor we wouldn't be inviting him over to our house," she said. "We would like for the state, or Congress, to take action to prevent more events like this one from happening."
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Herring formed Women Against Matt Gaetz following his latest of a series of comments demeaning to women. He insulted female abortion rights activists while speaking in late July to students at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa.
"We were called fat. We were called ugly. We were told we look like a thumb," Herring said. "Even if the sentiments were accurate, they were below the office of a U.S. Congressman. And when he was given a chance to apologize, he doubled down on what he had said."
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Once established on Facebook, Women Against Matt Gaetz grew within a matter of days to nearly 6,000 members. Herring announced Tuesday that membership had reached the 10,000-member mark.
Cathy Halprin was one of those decked out in pink Tuesday waving a sign calling for Gaetz's ouster from Congress,
"As a Christian and a mother of two daughters, I believe everyone deserves respect," Halprin said. "I believe our elected officials should act with integrity, and Matt Gaetz does not."
The controversial Gaetz, who serves Northwest Florida as the state's First Congressional District representative, has drawn opposition from Mark Lombardo and Greg Merk in the Republican primary. Early voting has gotten underway and the primary itself is scheduled for Aug. 23.
The winner of the primary will face either Rebekah Jones or Margaret "Peggy" Schiller in November's general election.
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Women Against Matt Gaetz rally ahead of Niceville High Academy Night