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Tweet by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz stirs accusations of racism

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is under fire for what some view as a racist Twitter taunt against two black lawmakers, a sign that the House and Senate standoff over healthcare funding has devolved into personal attacks.

In his Thursday afternoon tweet, Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, singled out Sens. Arthenia Joyner and Dwight Bullard, both of whom are black, out of the 13 Democratic senators who filed an emergency lawsuit challenging the House for ending its session early.

“This lawsuit reads like it was researched and drafted by Sen Joyner ... and spell checked by Sen Bullard,” Gaetz wrote.

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Almost immediately, and through the night, tweets both supportive and angry flew at Gaetz. By Friday morning, he’d been chided by fellow Republicans Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, who called for a public apology.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli apologized on his own Twitter account and defended Gaetz as “an agitator, yes, but not a racist.”

Joyner, the Senate Democratic leader from Tampa, said that Gaetz was immature and that he “didn’t respect race,” highlighting diversity among the Senate’s 14 Democrats and questioning his motives in specifically criticizing her and Bullard, D-Cutler Bay.

“To single us out and imply that I can’t research and he can’t spell was offensive,” Joyner said. “Why not Sen. [Darren] Soto? Why not Sen. [Maria Lorts] Sachs? Why just Joyner and Bullard?”

Gaetz could not be reached for comment, and Joyner said Friday afternoon that he hadn’t reached out and apologized to her. But Gaetz did issue a partial apology Friday via Twitter.

“My criticisms of ObamaCare Expansion and it’s [sic] supporters are based solely on the facts,” he wrote. “Deeply sorry if anyone read more into it than that.”

Joyner says this issue is about more than just a tweet with racial overtones. She has suggested that House Republicans’ opposition to Medicaid expansion is racially motivated.

Florida accepts millions of dollars from the federal government, she said, and Republicans have been willing to take that money in the past.

“Prior to this administration, the person who sat in the White House didn’t look like either Sen. Bullard or myself,” she said. “We do share something with the president, and that’s color.”

Gaetz has a reputation in the Capitol for his firebrand personality, put on full display on both the House floor and Twitter. In 2012, he told the Herald/Times that he has fired off a few tweets that he might have reconsidered.

“There might have been a few I wouldn’t have sent if I waited 10 to 20 seconds,” he said.

But Bullard, who’s also chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, said he thinks Gaetz’s tweet was deliberate.

“I will say this, though,” Bullard told reporters Friday afternoon. “#HeKnewWhatHeMeant.”

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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