Q&A with Nikki Fried: On Ron DeSantis, 'there's a better way to lead than throwing bombs'

James Call
Tallahassee Democrat

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a series of Q&As with each of the Florida gubernatorial candidates. Invitations have been sent to each candidate to meet with James Call of the USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida at the offices of the Tallahassee Democrat newsroom in downtown Tallahassee. A previous interview with Charlie Crist can be found online at tallahassee.com

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried can explain why she believes she will be Florida’s first female governor in a 29-second elevator ride. 

Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, is challenging Pinellas County Congressman Charlie Crist and state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade for the party’s nomination to face Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in November. 

In 2018, Fried bucked a Republican surge at the ballot box that saw the GOP win four of five statewide elections.

Previous coverage of Democratic candidates for governor:

Though she had never run for public office, Fried won over disaffected Republicans and no-party affiliated voters and became the first Democrat in 12 years to win a Cabinet seat. 

Detractors dismissed the victory as a fluke. But her opponent, then-Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, was a veteran lawmaker with a $5.4 million campaign account that dwarfed Fried’s $1.8 million. 

Fried countered the capital connections Caldwell built over eight years in the Legislature with a coalition of growers, gun control advocates, women, environmentalists, and youth. 

“They’re still here,” Fried said of the voters who swept her into office. "I can do it again."

The 44-year-old Fried is a former Alachua County public defender, who also advocated for at-risk children and lobbied for medical marijuana. 

She knows how to make a case.  

The one she pled four years ago was that the Department of Agriculture was either inept or irresponsible in how it regulated a concealed weapons permit program, implemented clean water initiatives and managed a licensing program for cannabis growers. 

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried speaks during a voting rights rally on the steps of the Historic Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Now, she argues DeSantis and a Republican-dominated Legislature are missing in action on a series of everyday policy issues. Instead, she adds, they “create hatred and divisiveness” with a culture war focused on race, sex, abortion, and public schools. 

Fried must get past Crist and Taddeo before she can take on DeSantis and the GOP majorities that control the Florida House, Senate, and Cabinet. She currently trails Crist in public opinion polls and fundraising, with Taddeo placing a distant third in both.  

“Every single issue that we are dealing with today, Charlie was on the other side making the issue worse because of his time while he was not only governor, but (also) Commissioner of Education, to his time as Attorney General to senator,” Fried said.

Fried said Crist had his chance. She argues her record as agriculture commissioner shows she can lead Florida in a fight to clean toxic algae from waterways, reduce a shortage of affordable homes, provide more support to public schools and improve the lives of low-wage workers.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, who is running as a Democratic candidate for Florida Governor, responds to questions from Tallahassee Democrat Florida Capital Bureau reporter James Call in an interview at the Democrat office Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

"People need to see that there’s a better way to lead than just throwing bombs to throw bombs, but actually to come up with solutions,” said Fried, as the elevator came to a 6th floor stop in Tallahassee’s City Centre building. 

Last month, Fried sat for an interview with reporter James Call in the USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida's offices in downtown Tallahassee. The questions and answers that follow were edited for clarity and brevity:  

Q: If the Florida Legislature were to give you a blank check on policy like it has given Gov. DeSantis on redistricting, what would you do? 

Fried: Medicaid expansion. We start there and start working with them on Medicaid expansion. Everybody across the board has somebody that's elderly, dealing with healthcare issues, or they themselves are dealing with health issues. 

Affordable housing. I’m hearing stories, whether it is down in Key West, Miami, Central Florida, North Florida, the consistent message is housing, housing, housing, and the economy.  

We are seeing rent increases of 40, 50, 60%. 

And it is not a problem just for those with low incomes. Affordability is in the eyes of the beholder. 

We need to put more money into building more homes because that’s part of the problem – we've diverted almost $2.3 billion out of the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust fund since Jeb (Bush) was governor (1998). 

Think of all the homes we could have built over those years. 

Now, this is where you start prioritizing. Obviously more support for public schools. We will roll back a lot of the policies and the bills that have been done the last two years, the voting bill, the protest bill, (the rollback) of home rule initiatives. 

Q: You tell Democratic clubs and gatherings that you’ll take the fight to Ron DeSantis and 'beat him like I have done time and again' over the last three years.  How have you beaten Gov. DeSantis? 

Fried: The first time was the 2020 session, and when he tried to take the Office of Energy from the Department. I asked, for what purpose? And I kept saying, ‘do you have a plan? Have you put out any legislation? Have you done anything about energy, or climate, or what not?'  

So, we put out a 72-page plan had our first Energy and Climate Summit in almost 20 years. 

Then when he tried to change the Cabinet (procedure) regarding appointments to the Department of Environmental Protection …  It took two and a half years. 

We exposed him when it came to the million COVID tests (expired in storage).  

Last year we had press conference after press conference dealing with (DeSantis' refusal) to bring down $870 million in (federal) SNAP EBT benefits, and that he was not going to apply for $2.1 billion from the federal government on education that he ended up having to apply for. 

Q: Your reaction to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature holding a special session on redistricting during the Jewish faith’s week-long observance of Passover. 

Fried: I’m insulted. But they don’t care. I mean, they just don't.

This governor, for the first time in modern history, filed his own congressional maps. I was the first one to call it what it was – he’s going after the minority asset access districts.  

He wants to disassemble the Voting Rights Act, so he holds the legislature hostage on the congressional maps. He vetoes the maps and the legislature is like, ‘why don't you just do it anyhow, Governor.’ 

And if enacted, his unconstitutional maps will cost Florida taxpayers millions in another drawn-out court battle that will likely leave the lines blurred right up to the election. 

I have never seen a legislative body give such power to an executive branch to the governor.

Q: Leon Democrats asked me to ask you if you would be interested in a partnership with Charlie Crist and run on a unity ticket?  

Fried: I don't know how that would work. I mean, I tried that. I told Charlie, go run for your congressional seat, that way we get to spend money on down-ballot campaigns

Q: You are one of just three Democrats in the past 24 years to have won a statewide election and tell people that you know how to build the Democratic Party into a competitive rival. 

Fried: We as Democrats don't run campaigns well, point blank. Okay.  

So, many Democrats spend so much time saying we got to turn out the blue, we just got to turn out the blue and they focus all their time and money in those blue areas. 

But we also have to look at the areas that we can flip and the areas that we have to lose by less and target those areas.  

Also, we spend so much time and money talking about just the top of the ticket, there's no unifying message for the entire ticket and the down-ballot candidates don’t have the resources to do what they need to do on the ground. 

There’s only so much money.  

Why in the world would I go to Miami Dade, the largest and most expensive media market, and run TV commercials only about me and not put the rest of ticket? 

Put the House and Senate candidates who cannot afford to be on TV and show them what a Democratic administration would look like to our state with one unifying message. 

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, who is running as a Democratic candidate for Florida Governor, responds to questions from Tallahassee Democrat Florida Capital Bureau reporter James Call in an interview at the Democrat office Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

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