The Democrat who ran against Matt Gaetz for Congress in 2020 has an unusual request to the national media: Stop talking so much about my opponent and focus on who he has hurt.
Phil Ehr, a retired military veteran, says he's running again in 2022 for Gaetz's seat in Florida's heavily Republican 1st congressional district. But he says that he is preparing to participate in a special election, meaning he doesn't expect Gaetz to survive his current blizzard of scandals. And Ehr says that Gaetz shouldn't be rewarded with attention on himself in any event.
"I've called for Matt Gaetz to resign and if he doesn't, for him to be expelled from Congress for his pattern of unethical and dishonorable conduct," Ehr told Raw Story in an exclusive interview. "But it's just awful to see the coverage he's receiving that's focused on him and not the alleged victims of his alleged crimes.
"The national media should be talking about the abuse of young women, whether it's 14-to-17, 17 years old or even abuse of women of majority age over 18 by this guy who's 38 years old now. Media coverage of Gaetz should focus on the victims and their families, because child protection laws exist for good reason."
Ehr says the attacks directly on Gaetz actually play into his hands.
"Gaetz has always been more interested in his media career than public service. He thinks Floridians love his ridiculous political theater, which is his only path to the fame and fortune he craves. That's why when Trump came on the scene, you could see Matt Gaetz's mouth salivating and his smile widening. He made himself the most Trumpy Republican in Congress."
Ehr says that he and other residents of Gaetz's district are not surprised by the charges against the flamboyant congressman:
"There's a pattern of dishonorable conduct by Gaetz that is long established in the area of finances, in the area of constituent relations and in the area of personal conduct in his private life, including his driving record. Now he's just tapped into anger and he's so manipulative. He's manipulated people in our district and that's got to stop."
Ehr undoubtedly faces an uphill battle to win the heavily red 1st district in the Florida Panhandle. The Cook Political Report rates it as plus-22 for the Republicans and Gaetz beat him in 2020 by a whopping 134,000-vote margin. But Ehr was able to raise $2 million in his 2020 race against Gaetz and he says Democrats' chances would improve in a special election, which would take place this November if Gaetz resigns or is forced out of office.
"I'm a filed candidate now and I'm in preparation for a special election," Ehr says. Asked from his position on the ground if he thought hopefuls on the Republican side were doing the same, Ehr said, "I'm certain of it."
Ehr says he was a Republican for decades before joining the Democratic Party in 2016 because "I couldn't abide Trump." He says, "the Republican Party had left me, there was not even a sliver I could hang onto." He describes himself today as an "independent-minded Democrat solidly in the center of the entire political spectrum."
Despite the 1st District's heavily Republican tilt, Ehr says Gaetz's character issues have damaged the party there severely in recent months. Ehr says he's seeing a substantial shift on the campaign trail in the view of Gaetz by Republicans in the district "except the people who keep saying 'stop the steal' and the QAnon nonsense."
Ehr argues that the district has remained Republican for so long because of traditional party values. Noting that it's the "largest military community of any congressional district in the nation," Ehr says there are a large number of independents and Republicans who could shift because of the Gaetz scandals.
"Military people are normal Republicans," Ehr says. "They are put off by the allegations of child sex trafficking, Gaetz's support for the big lie that produced the insurrection on January 6 and for the "America-first" policy and the racism that goes with that. I'm hearing we need adult leadership."
He adds, "Matt Gaetz seeks power for power's sake. He doesn't have classic Republican principles, that's for sure.
"Everyday people who once supported Gaetz are now waking up to his morally corrupt leadership. Nobody is surprised by new allegations of criminal behavior by Matt Gaetz. They continue a pattern of unethical and dishonorable conduct. Republicans, and more importantly independents-- the largest growing group of voters-- are ready to break from Gaetz and restore honor and integrity in Congress."
Ehr is a retired naval flight officer who served 26 years in the military, rising to the level of Commander. He "flew reconnaissance in the Cold War and combat support in Desert Storm. He provided strategic advice to senior leaders in Washington, London, and NATO in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras," according to his campaign website.
That's about the opposite of Gaetz's resume. Still, Gaetz describes himself as a "fighter" despite his privileged career owing to his father, former State Sen. Don Gaetz, widely regarded as one of Florida's most feared political power brokers. What comes to mind for Ehr when he hears that "fighter" description?
"It's a disservice to all the men and women and their families who have actually sacrificed for our country since World War II and beyond," Ehr says. "He would been laughed out public life by that generation, and he should be laughed out of public life now."