Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz will face congressional challenge from COVID-19 whistleblower Rebekah Jones

click to enlarge Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz will face congressional challenge from COVID-19 whistleblower Rebekah Jones
Screenshot of Jones' website

Days after former Florida Department of Health GIS manager Rebekah Jones received official whistleblower protection for her lack of discretion about the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, she was suspended from Twitter for platform manipulation and spam. Without her main outlet of 400,000 followers, she turned to Instagram to make a big announcement.

“I’m running for Matt Geatz’s seat next year!” she wrote in a now-deleted post. “No more sex traffickers in Congress! Well at least one fewer with Matt Geatz gone (sic).”

After a media frenzy, Jones deleted the post. She said she was attempting to point out Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “hypocrisy” in writing a law that allowed political candidates to sue media companies that ban them, while still celebrating her Twitter suspension. At the time, Jones said she believed there would be a good candidate who could “keep this pervert [Gaetz] from writing laws regulating his own sick behavior.”

Turns out that person is, in fact, Jones. The bit became real when she filed to run as an Independent in Florida’s 1st congressional district on June 25.

FL-01 is one the most Republican districts in the state, and in the past three elections, has voted for Gaetz with over 30% margins. An Independent has never won the congressional seat in the district, and a Democrat has not won in this millennium, but Jones hopes Gaetz’s sex trafficking allegations and her personal sacrifices will help sway voters.

As an Independent, Jones will be competing against members from both parties. Despite the challenges this poses, she feels that running as an Independent will allow her more flexibility to address her constituents’ needs. Though she leans Democrat, she said she tends to disagree with her progressive friends on certain policy issues.

“I think the terms ‘democrat’ and ‘republican’ are toxic to too many people these days,” she wrote in an email. “Issues impacting our day-to-day lives don't care what letter is next to your name.”

On her campaign website, she lists eight issues on her platform: protecting Florida’s environmental systems, promoting government transparency, fighting for media accountability in disinformation, giving access to representatives, ensuring the district’s veterans are taken care of, scrutinizing restrictive voting laws, funding science and research, and boosting support for all levels of education.

Jones says there’s still room for other issues on her platform, after she talks to more residents. For example, she said human trafficking remains a major issue in the state, and it’s something Jones has a personal connection to. When she was young, she said she discovered her grandfather had been trafficking a young girl. She called the FBI and said her grandfather went to jail in the Philippines.

“Trafficking is as black and white an issue as it gets,” she said. “We need to do more to stop it. That won’t happen with a man accused of repeatedly doing it as our rep.”

Gaetz seems unconcerned with Jones’s entrance into the race. Before Jones’s official filing, Gaetz tweeted, “Looks like I’m running against Florida’s Fauci…” He has previously said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the national infectious disease expert, has “blood on his hands” for involving himself in the type of research that “erupted this virus into the world.” Gaetz has not responded to two calls to his office for comment.

Jones has been at the center of political COVID-19 turmoil for the last year. In May of 2020, she was fired from her role in the state Department of Health for “insubordination.” She claimed the FDOH, guided by Gov. DeSantis, asked her to manipulate data to show the state was ready for reopening.

For months, Jones and her opponents battled online. The administration highlighted Jones’s sometimes unsavory past, and trolls began to bog down her notifications.

In December, law enforcement raided Jones’s home, searching for evidence that she sent an unauthorized message through an FDOH service. After finding evidence on her computers, Jones was charged with a third-degree felony offense. She and her family moved to Maryland in January because she said she feared for her safety. The raid, she thought, was an intimidation tactic.

After a year of investigation into Jones’s whistleblower claims, the Florida Inspector General decided Jones qualified for whistleblower protection. Six days later, her Twitter presence was effectively silenced. While she created a new account for her campaign, it was suspended within a day of its creation.

Rep. Gaetz had already raised over $1.8 million for his campaign by the end of March, spending about $1.3 million of that total. Jones sees that she has a long way to catch up to combat Gaetz’s “ridiculous pile of money.”

Considering the communication setback, she said the key to reaching voters is to have a dialogue. On her website, anyone can book a one-on-one appointment to speak to her. She thinks that “moral Republican men and women” want someone with integrity to vote for who isn’t a Democrat. And despite the “failed smear campaigns by people like Desantis,” she hopes voters won’t forget that she “risked my career, freedom and safety for the people of Florida.”

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