Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried West Palm Beach forum dominated by housing crisis, agreement DeSantis must go
WEST PALM BEACH — In a face-to-face encounter Wednesday evening, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried took aim at Gov. Ron DeSantis in a forum dominated by kitchen table issues.
Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Fried and Congressman Crist, the former GOP governor of Florida, met at the Box Gallery near downtown. The event was hosted by the Palm Beach County and Broward County chapters of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida.
The 2022 campaign has been marked by volatile wedge issues, such as a 15-week ban on abortion, controversial school legislation related to teaching race, and another education law vocally criticized by the LGBTQ+ community. But at the forum, where each candidate was allotted three minutes to speak per question, the topics focused on healthcare, jobs, housing, and education.
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Wednesday's debate comes two months before the Aug. 23 primary and after the Democratic candidate pool recently shrank, following state Sen. Annette Taddeo's exit from the race. She has notably endorsed Crist's campaign.
Rolando Barrero, the president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus in Palm Beach County, moderated the debate. He said the caucus would make a joint endorsement with all the chapters in the state during the primary.
Tension was noticeable when the candidates sat down at the table to begin the debate. But the discussion was largely civil as neither Crist nor Fried threw verbal punches at each other, preferring to strike at DeSantis instead.
Debate topics: healthcare, housing, jobs and education
The candidates began the debate by agreeing to expand Medicaid to a larger population of low-income Floridians immediately if they are elected. Money to broaden the pool of Floridians eligible for the federally-funded program has been available for almost a decade, but GOP governor DeSantis, and Rick Scott before him, have not supported doing so.
Talk of the housing crisis – prompted by spiraling prices for homes and rentals – took up a large portion of the debate. Both candidates expressed concern with Florida's unaffordable housing market and the reputation the state is gaining as being one of the most expensive in the nation.
Realtor.com highlighted in a report that Miami was the least affordable rental market. A Redfin study found that Miami was also the most popular place for people to move to, especially people from New York.
Both candidates agreed to protect the Sadowski Trust Fund, which is an affordable housing trust fund funded by fees on home purchases. Notably, the fund has been raided by legislators in various years.
Fried criticized DeSantis' launch of the Hometown Heroes Housing Program saying the $100 million from this program was taken from Sadowski money which could have been used to produce more affordable housing units in the long term.
"When Ron played politics with housing, he left a whole lot of people out," Fried said.
Fried said that DeSantis and Scott both spent a lot of time encouraging people to move to Florida and stopped paying attention to those who already live in the state.
"Florida is unaffordable. Why? Because we have a governor who doesn't give a damn about you," Crist said.
Teachers, low wages, and controversial school legislation topics discussed
Fried and Crist both addressed the problem of low wages for teachers in Florida, the gun safety threat from a series of mass shootings in schools and public places nationwide as well as the controversy over the Parental Rights in Education law — dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.
Crist called the law "hateful" and said DeSantis was pushing this measure to exploit culture war sentiment to fuel a potential presidential campaign. The law bans classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade. LGBTQ+ activists have said the law will contribute to increased marginalization.
Fried frequently noted the low wages paid to Florida's teachers – even after pay raises and bonuses pushed by DeSantis – and said that a problem lies in both a teacher shortage and a teacher-retention challenge. This is because teachers are paid little and are not guaranteed safety in classrooms without gun control measures.
Common goal: DeSantis has got to go: Gov. eyeing White House, Crist says
The two candidates had similar views on the various topics throughout the debate, but especially on one point: Getting DeSantis out of office.
Crist, who is running in the Democratic race after serving a stint as a Republican governor, underlined speculation that DeSantis is eyeing a 2024 White House bid.
"He thinks a lot more about the White House than your house," Crist said.
Fried also did not miss any opportunity to criticize DeSantis – and made one very notable point about Crist as well.
When discussing concerns about a possible Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Fried stressed that Republicans were "attacking a woman's right to choose." And she took one of the evening's few potshots by pointing out that the chief justice on the now-conservative-friendly Florida Supreme Court was appointed by Crist when he was governor from 2007 to 2011.
After the debate, one audience member said he would take time to assess the candidates' performances.
Both were very well-spoken and both had pros and cons, said Bradley Jackson, the secretary of the Palm Beach County LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus.
"I think they're both extremely well-qualified," Jackson said. "At this point, I don't even know what I'm going to do."
After the debate, Fried stayed to speak to audience members individually. Crist left shortly after.
Stephany Matat is a journalist covering business and politics for The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @StephanyMatat. Help support local journalism and take advantage of a limited-time offer for new subscribers. Get total digital access to the Post for only $9.99 for a full year. Subscribe today!