NICEVILLE — The chairman of the Okaloosa County Republican Party says he was asked to leave a Thursday rally for GOP congressional candidate Matt Gaetz and gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis featuring Donald Trump Jr., eldest son of the president. The event drew nearly 1,000 people to Northwest Florida State College's Raider Arena in advance of Florida's Aug. 28 partisan primary elections.
In a prepared statement, Gaetz — Northwest Florida's Republican congressional incumbent — disputed local GOP head Mark Franks' assertion that Gaetz had personally directed that Franks be asked to leave.
"I’ve been told Mr. Franks was upset that he was not included in the seating area reserved for supporters and guests of the speakers and Trump family," Gaetz said. "My understanding is that he and his family stayed for the entire event."
Countering Gaetz, Franks said he did, in fact, leave the rally. He and his family had been sitting in a VIP section for about a half-hour before being asked to leave, Franks said, and he left before the rally got under way.
"I walked out the door at the moment it was starting," he said. Franks said he was, however, able to arrange for his family to stay in the VIP section for the rally.
Franks said he was upset, but only because the local Republican Executive Committee — leaders of the 52 precincts across the county — had not been included in the planning and execution of the rally, a common practice for all local GOP events.
Describing the incident on his personal Facebook page, Franks said that "not long after we sat down a guy in a shirt and tie asked to speak with me ... and he let's (sic) me know that Congressman Gaetz has requested I leave the rally. He also did not like where my family was sitting and (said) they would need to move."
Franks said Friday he was able to persuade the man, whom he did not know, to allow his family — including his 90-year-old grandmother, his mother, aunt and uncle — to stay in the VIP section.
Franks speculated Friday that he and his family were approached because, in his role as a local GOP official, he has shown support for Republican candidates not supported by the Gaetz campaign. Franks said Friday he had been in touch with people close to Gaetz, but had not talked with the congressman because he did not have his cellphone number.
Jillian Lane Wyant, communications director for the Gaetz campaign, completely rejected Franks' account of the rally.
"At no point was Mr. Franks asked to leave the event last night," she wrote in a Friday email.
Franks said Friday he asked about being seated in the VIP area when he and his family entered the arena, and was told by Luke Ball, Gaetz's deputy campaign manager, that he and his family could sit there. Later, according to Franks, Ball said "he agreed" with the decision to ask Franks to leave and ask his family to move.
Ball declined to comment for the record, referring inquiries to Wyant.