Ousted Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones wins House primary, will face Rep. Matt Gaetz

An ousted Florida data scientist who said she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 numbers and came out as a critic of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for his handling of the pandemic has won her US House primary race and will challenge Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of former President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters, for a seat in Congress.

Rebekah Jones won Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Northwest Florida’s First Congressional District, offering a chance to unseat incumbent Gaetz, who has represented the district since 2017.

Jones was thrust into the public eye at the start of the pandemic after being fired from her job with the Florida Department of Public Health.

The Democratic candidate said she was fired for speaking out against what she said was state manipulation of COVID-19 data, while state officials said she was fired for insubordination.

Tuesday marked his first successful foray into electoral politics.

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Who is Rebekah Jones? A data scientist rose to fame at the start of the pandemic

Jones worked as a data scientist who helped build the state’s COVID-19 dashboard as it navigated the early months of the pandemic in 2020. She was fired from her position in May of this year there for what she said was her refusal to manipulate COVID-19 data to support the governor’s plans to reopen the state.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.

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State agents raid Rebekah Jones’ home

Her firing and feud with DeSantis reached a crescendo in December 2020, when state law enforcement officials raided her Tallahassee, Florida home to execute a search warrant. They seized his computer equipment.

Jones captured the research on video and posted it to social media, where it went viral. The raid caused an outcry among those who viewed her as a persecuted dissident of the DeSantis administration.

A month later, she was charged with a felony accusing her of illegally accessing state computer systems to send a mass text message using the state’s emergency alert system to more than 1,700 people calling on state employees to speak out on COVID-19. The charges are still pending.

Jones has denied any wrongdoing.

A state investigative report released earlier this year found no evidence that officials attempted to manipulate coronavirus data, as Jones claims. She and her legal team refuted the findings of the investigation, in documents obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, who is part of the USA TODAY Network.

Jones also faces a pending misdemeanor charge of cyberstalking following a less-reported incident prior to his work on COVID-19 that was used by many of Jones’ critics to attack his credibility.

Primary hopes almost dashed

His candidacy for Congress appeared to have been over just a few weeks ago. A judge disqualified her because she did not meet the party registration requirements.

His Democratic opponent, Peggy Schiller, had filed a lawsuit alleging that Jones had been recorded “unaffiliated” for a crucial two-month period while Jones was living in Maryland.

Jones appealed and was released in the running. She got more than 62% of the votes.

A confrontation against Rep. Gaetz

Jones intended to run as an unaffiliated candidate, but a new provision in Florida law required her to run under her registered party.

“I was supposed to run as a Democrat, but I’m not running on a party platform,” Jones told the Pensacola News-Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, in February. “I’m not running on Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden. In fact, I got a lot of heat from my own party for criticizing Joe Biden, especially on the COVID response and the debacle in Afghanistan.”

“I’m the only one who can win against a Republican, Gaetz or whatever, and I’m definitely the only one who’s gone up against the GOP in the state and beat them,” Jones said at the time.

Overthrowing Gaetz in a traditionally red-light district is shaping up to be a daunting task. The Republican congressman quickly secured a primary victory on Tuesday. But he faces legal problems and scandals. Gaetz is under federal investigation into allegations that he slept with a minor since last year.

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Contributor: Staff, Pensacola News-Journal; Jim Little, Pensacola News-Journal; Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, FLORIDA TODAY; Sergio Bustos and John Kennedy, Democrat of Tallahassee; Jigsha Desai, Democrat of Tallahassee

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rebekah Jones wins US House primary, will face Rep. Matt Gaetz

Sean N. Ayres