Is The Matt Gaetz/Will Harrell/Lakeland First era ending already?

Lakeland/Polk's government of, by, and for indulgent inheritance "wingmen" is an embarrassing dead end. We should try to work together to accomplish real goals and address real problems instead.

Remember when Matt Gaetz teamed with the Lakeland First PAC founders to vanquish ethically-troubled incumbent Ross Spano in the GOP primary for the FL-15 Congressional seat? Remember these good times and earnest manly hand shakes, so long ago? Well, six months ago…

That primary was probably the political high point for both Matt Gaetz and the “Lakeland First” PAC — hereafter referred to by me as the “Will Harrell First” PAC, which is a more accurate description.

Six months later, Scott Franklin is America’s highest paid congressional church mouse; “Will Harrell First” is pleasantly absent for once in a Lakeland City Commission race; and Matt Gaetz? Well, you know…

Will Harrell First

Here’s the full background on “Will Harrell First” and its offshoots if you want it. Bottom line, Will Harrell is the public voice and face and chairman of “Lakeland First.” He is a wannabe Matt Gaetz who thinks the primary function of local elections and governing is to restrict access to the cool kids table in the Lakeland Christian cafeteria. Here he is saying stuff to Lakeland Now in early 2020. Note the part in bold. We’ll come back to it.

For its part, Lakeland First’s only goal is to see proven, pro-business leaders elected to the City Commission, Chairman Will Harrell said, and the group will interview any candidate who inquires.

When asked about where he has any concerns about the effect of increasing the cost to run a competitive campaign in a small election like Lakeland’s, he said he wasn’t worried. 

“I think it’s the world we live in now you have to go to the voters where they are now,” Harrell said. “It does not seem like the older methods of (getting a message out by) newspaper endorsements and journalists at every event is a reality anymore.” 

But ultimately “I think it still comes down to the candidate and the candidate’s message. I think we’ve seen in several elections recently, the candidate who has won is the candidate who has worked the hardest to get their message out to voters. I think that’s paramount.” 

In “real life,” Will Harrell is a lawyer doing I’m not sure what for Harrell’s LLC, the Lakeland-based agribusiness his granddaddy started decades ago. I do know Harrell’s LLC, staunch “Christian” Republican business, got somewhere between $5 and $10 million in emergency federal government socialism — otherwise known as “Paycheck Protection” money.

That makes Harrell’s one of Polk County’s top three “small business” recipients of PPP money, which comes in the form of a loan you don’t have to pay back. You can search for yourself here at ProPublica’s “coronavirus bailouts” site. See a screenshot from an SBA spreadsheet below.

I’m sure Harrell’s LLC closely accounted for this money. I’m sure all of it went to employees — not to PAC play money or new cars. In any event, inheriting a job that lets you pull down between $5 and $10 million in free money from the federal government is the kind of pluck that built this country.

The Wingmen

In addition to the federal government, Will Harrell is indulged in his political dabbling by a number of local daddies, including his own. Together, they created the WINGMAN PAC for Scott Franklin in the giant self-flagellating Trump-off 2020 primary with Ross Spano, who was also, shall we say, compromised.

Wingman PAC, the committee created to support Franklin’s candidacy, reported more than $247,000 in contributions through the end of September. That figure included infusions of $70,000 from Barney Barnett of Lakeland, $58,000 from Jack Harrell Jr., $15,000 from Wesley Barnett (Barney’s son) and $12,500 from Wesley Beck.

Will Harrell doesn’t quite have daddy’s money quite yet. So he apparently he only dropped $1,500.

Scott Franklin also called Matt Gaetz his “Wingman,” when Gaetz’s very public endorsement helped Scott beat Spano. I don’t have the energy to track down direct campaign connections between Gaetz and Harrell; but I’d be pretty shocked if they didn’t coordinate.

Somehow, I suspect “Wingman” is not the word Scott would choose to describe Matt Gaetz today — although it was clear for years that “wingman” might have a variety of meanings when said in conjunction with Matt Gaetz…

I keep asking Alice Hunt, who now runs Scott’s local office, what Scott would call Gaetz now — and I keep waiting for an answer. LOL.

Bored failsons all the way down

Will Harrell’s entire public life, near as I can tell, is built around the expectation of free, readily available, unlimited play money for whatever sandbox he chooses to thrash around in until he gets bored. That is a reasonable expectation for him. Money for nothing — and with no consequences or moral restraint — defines his experience from everything I can see in his public life. He’s not alone in that, of course.

In that defining experience of entitlement, see how similar Will Harrell sounds to Gaetz and Gaetz’s already indicted buddy, Joel Greenberg.

Here’s Gaetz and his Gaetz’s daddy, Don Gaetz. Also note Jeb Bush in bold below. Those of ya’ll who think of Jeb Crow as a statesman, well…

Don, who sits on the board of Florida nonprofit Triumph Gulf Coast, reported that the couple’s net worth was $29.6 million as of June 2020, according to a document he submitted to the state’s ethics commission. They own a portfolio of publicly-traded stocks, 13 pieces of real estate, seven-figure stakes in three private companies, as well as $375,000 worth of “antiques, imported rugs, furniture, books” and a 2013 Mercedes-Benz S550…

…Before the elder Gaetz, 73, moved into politics, he was a successful businessman who started his own company. After graduating from Concordia College in Minnesota, he worked as a hospital administrator in Wisconsin and Florida. In 1983, he cofounded hospice provider Vitas Healthcare with an ordained minister and registered nurse, and helped build it over the next two decades. In 2004, the company—touted as “the nation's largest provider of hospice services for patients with severe, life-limiting illnesses,” with more than 6,000 employees—was bought by Cincinnati plumbing business Roto-Rooter for $406 million. 

By then, Don Gaetz was also serving as the superintendent of Florida’s Okaloosa county school district. Two years later, he won election to the Florida state legislature and became the state senate president in 2012, a position he held until 2014. 

Gaetz was an established name in panhandle politics when his son Matt began his ascent in a 2010 special election for a seat in the state house. Just 27 years old and three years removed from law school at William & Mary, his campaign raised $479,000, including support from Jeb Bush, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and more than $100,000 from him and his family. He narrowly won the Republican primary against competitors with far less funding.

Here’s 31-year-old Joel Greenberg:

Talking to an Orlando Sentinel reporter last fall, by then already facing charges that could cost his freedom, he lamented the loss of his friends.

“No one wants to talk to me anymore,” he said, with his voice breaking. “You have no idea what I’ve been through, and what I’m going through now.”

Greenberg was elected in 2016 as a newcomer to Seminole County’s political scene after defeating longtime incumbent tax collector Ray Valdes in the Republican primary then beating a write-in opponent in the general.

Largely unknown at the time, but capable of self-funding his campaign as the scion of a dental empire owned by his father, Greenberg railed against Valdes for buying and selling tax-delinquent properties that are handled by the tax collector’s office.

And notice this from the same Greenberg story:

Having won elected office at just 31 years old in 2016, he had since expressed boredom with the job but seemed to relish his connections with people of wealth and influence, including developer and former state legislator Chris Dorworth.

I can’t think of three dudes who more thoroughly embody the BS stereotype of “Millenials.” Real millennials, for the most part, have no wealth or inherited capital, and are fighting admirably just to exist and carve an existence for themselves in these bow-tied boys’ figurative frat houses. Harrell, Gaetz, Greenberg and so many other inheritance babies give all other Millenials a bad name.

And I wonder if the daddies of Harrell First have decided to give Will a time out in this Lakeland city election. All of them could use it.

A strange definition of winning

“Harrell First’s” notion of political power isn’t even political power. Like I said, it’s policing the cool kid table at Lakeland Christian or All Saints. They have no governing philosophy or goals beyond vague self-interest, very petty exclusion, and entertainment. Again, they share that with Gaetz and Greenberg.

Controlling that tiny, tiny bubble of status is their definition of power, which means they can never, ever afford to lose an election. That’s a big disadvantage in sustaining power of any kind.

People who actually want to achieve concrete action politically and make beneficial human change and enhance their community capacity can afford to lose an election or many elections. That’s because campaigns and public debates and battling over policy is how public understanding and policy changes. We have no cool tables to police. Just ideas and morality. The new moral and intellectual ideas of losing campaigns are often more important and lasting than individual victories.

Did Bernie’s ideas about economic populism and support of working people really “lose” to Biden, based on what you’ve seen so far?

Did my exceedingly ambitious ideas about education leadership, structure, and policy lose? I guess we’ll see when an entirely new Polk leadership structure comes on board or as “Jeb Crow” continues to grow as a thing, along with my readership.

For now, I’m thankful to Will Harrell and other local failsons and faildaughters who elevated me to “Public Enemy Number 1” and gave me the absurdity of “Billy Townsend is an anti-Trumper who threatens Trump voters, hates civics, encourages mass violence and government overthrow, and is also racist” as a weapon to use in the fight for what many of us are trying to do. They apparently never read about the briar patch at Lakeland Christian. Six months later, I’m not quiet; and they are.

Moreover, the only real controversial actions the Harrell First City Commission have taken are moving the Confederate monument and imposing a city mask mandate. Lakeland Electric seems safe, at least for now. Also, the daddies of Harrell First have built some neat stuff with their inherited or married capital that they would have built anyway — and with little or no controversy. Great.

Practically, Harrell First acts as a political and financial drag on any real effort to build public capacity — creating, funding, and sustaining systems of policing, housing, education, and connectivity infrastructure that are both robust and equitable, for instance. But they’re hardly alone in that. PACs won’t break or sustain that inertia; it will have to be an engaged public. And that takes constant work and attention.

The cool kid table in the Lakeland Christian cafeteria is probably about 40 square feet. The City of Lakeland — fully in transition from sleepy-ish town to significant city — is 75 square miles. And perhaps this illustrates the most fundamental difference between me and Harrell First and how we see our community: I don’t care who rules, myself included. That’s a provincial, inherited-title concern. I care what the ruler, whatever his or her identity, actually does.

These bored high-born children need a time out. But we can’t give them one if we keep asking for their play money.

If you’re a political candidate or activist or just plain citizen who wants to achieve something specific and real, you cannot lose to Will Harrell unless you ask him for money. You may not win an election, but you will not have lost.

Harrell First’s money is not the source of whatever power they have. Your desire for their money (or their social status) — for what it can do for you — is their power.

The more you covet the cool kids table at Lakeland Christian, the more power you hand Will Harrell ( and Matt Gaetz, etc.) over you and your public behavior. Just look at Scott Franklin’s descent into parodic, abject Gaetzism. It’s embarrassing for everyone.

If I have a critique of non-Harrell First politics in our community, it’s that too many people run for office because they think it’s a cool thing to do. If you are asking the public to give you the power to act in its name because that sounds fun, you’re 1) very susceptible to the Harrell First siren song 2) probably not going to do a very good job using that power in the public’s name.

Too many candidates are driven by what they want to be — not what they want to do. That is Harrell First bait. Remember “the group will interview any candidate who inquires.” Stop inquiring.

I supported Carole Phillipson in her race against Chad McLeod mostly because of Harrell First. But it’s also fact that Carole had asked them for their money and support — and been turned down. It’s hard to run against them — or complain about their power to buy votes after the fact — when you eagerly petition for that power to help you. You really can’t have it both ways.

“I don’t know how you compete with a group that will spend $40,000, or $40,000-plus, to get a seat,” [Carole] said. “When someone wants a seat that badly, how do you compete with that?”

Of course you can compete. You compete by competing. I damn well competed; and I’m still competing. Right now. Indeed, repeated competition against Harrell First, which cannot afford to lose — ever — is precisely what Harrell First most fears. They don’t want to compete; they want to win, in their narrow definition of winning. They’ll just go away if people stop asking for their money and start challenging them openly every time.

They may be doing that now. You’ll have to decide if my open critiques of the last few months have helped keep them out of this election. I have no idea. Perhaps they’ll be back like gangbusters bragging about all their PPP money in the weeks in years to come.

Overall, if getting Harrell First (or any big money) out of local elections is a priority for you, the proper course is to ignore them as donors; stand for something you want to do; and then campaign against them and make them a public liability if they campaign against you.

If they decide they suddenly want to like your platform and drop money on you, great, take it. There’s no such thing as purity in human politics. But don’t beg; and don’t agree to anything. They enjoy the begging, I assure you. And you never know what they might want.

A do-over, without all the cool-kid tables?

Anyway, doesn’t this all seem stupid — like some degenerate high school movie? There are alternatives that are far better. All of them involve purging cool kid tables from our thinking. I’m not sure why that’s hard to do — or why cool kid tables seem so important to power.

Cool-kid-table thinking contributes to our collective inherited capital problem, which we should address as a community and country. It’s creating Matt Gaetzes and Joel Greenbergs and Will Harrells — with the public life indulgence of Barney Barnetts and Jack Harrells and Scott Franklins and the rest. Stopping that public life indulgence would be a good start.

That might lead to recognizing that a massive swath of our community — indeed basically all of it — exists outside the Lakeland Christian cafeteria, much less the cool kids table.

As always, I’m certainly happy to introduce Will Harrell — who has never met me — to other parts of his community. Many of these “losers” out here living have valuable ideas and experience to deploy in developing and governing a healthy community. Public Enemy Number 1 is always available to serve the public good — with anyone.

Perhaps we should just chalk this whole Harrell First/Gaetz/Wingman era to a phase. If so, let’s end it and starting acting like grown ups.

Either way, the life of this city and country, which is lived far beyond cool kid tables, will continue to flow, whether or not Harrell First decides to sit there like a big, exclusive rock in the stream.