When Matt Caldwell's family settled in Gainesville in 1826, they were typical homesteaders of their era. They cleared pine trees to make room for cows and citrus crops, and worked for decades to turn their land into something productive.

Seven generations later, Caldwell is hoping to represent farmers, growers and consumers who maintain Florida's agriculture tradition.

The 37-year-old Republican running for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services has turned himself into the candidate that typically vies for the role — he's ditched his signature bow tie for a cowboy hat and his dress shoes for brown leather boots.

Caldwell, an eight-year veteran of the Florida House of Representatives, said he's running an "old-fashioned campaign" dedicated to clean water and a 21st-century approach to the agriculture industry.

"It's just hard work ethic," he said. "We took my House strategy and multiplied it statewide."

Caldwell was born in Gainesville and raised in Fort Myers, where he still lives with his wife, Yvonne, and 10-year-old daughter, Ava. He attended local schools in Lee County as a child. Caldwell received his associate's degree from Edison State College — now Florida SouthWestern State College — and a bachelor's degree in history from Florida Gulf Coast University.

He wasn't raised in a political family, he said, but remembers going to the polls with his parents and coloring in a blank U.S. map with his father as election results came in.

After he graduated college, Caldwell worked as a real estate appraiser and became involved with the Lee County Republican Party. In 2008, he ran for state Senate against incumbent Dave Aronberg and lost. In 2009, he became Marco Rubio's campaign chair in Lee County.

In 2010, Caldwell was elected into his current House seat, where he has played a role in supporting the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, pushing the Florida Forever bill and drafting a water policy bill that eased restrictions on polluters. Among those in his class were Miami state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, now the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, and outgoing House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who was his roommate.

Rep. Manny Díaz Jr. first met Caldwell in 2012 when he started to run for office and spend more time in Tallahassee. He said he goes to Caldwell with questions pertaining to the environment, and Caldwell goes to him with questions about education.

"It doesn't shock me that he wants to take a statewide office, especially when it's well within the issues he tackles," said Díaz, R-Hialeah. "He's mature beyond his age, and he sees the kinds of granular details most people aren't interested in discussing."

What does Florida's commissioner of agriculture do? What you need to know before voting

During his time as a state representative, Caldwell played a big role in various policies tangential to the environment, marking himself as a champion for agriculture interests.

In 2016, Caldwell co-sponsored the Legacy Florida bill, which earmarked about $200 million a year from Amendment 1 to fund clean-up projects in the Everglades.

Caldwell also voted in support of building a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to store water rather than releasing it through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and made a failed attempt to reform the Florida Forever program by setting gradual increases in funding.

Later in 2016, he helped pass a major water policy bill that eased restrictions on polluters. He defends the decision and says the growing population and urban development in the state is also to blame for the phosphorus runoff into the Everglades.

One mounting criticism Caldwell has drawn during the current campaign, however, is the large sum of money he's taken from the sugar industry, which is often blamed for pollution that contributes to suffocating blue-green algae blooms.

He argues that the sugar industry is not the only source responsible for the pollution-related problems plaguing the state's water.

GOP on a sugar high in race to replace Florida agriculture commissioner
"I do think it [Big Sugar] is unfairly the scapegoat for all problems that ever occurred in the history of the state of Florida," he said. "I don't view them as any more or less sinful than the rest of us that live here. We all have some kind of impact on changing the environment."

In 2013, Caldwell was among many state leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who attended a weekend retreat at a ranch on U.S. Sugar's property in Texas.

Lynetta Griner, a Caldwell supporter and 2018 Florida Farmer of the Year, says accepting money from sugar doesn't make Caldwell a "bought person."

"Big Sugar has as many rules to follow, as I do. We have regulations that all of us in agriculture have to comply with," said Griner, who runs her family's century-old timber farm in northwest Florida. "And the number of people we have in our state has contributed to the issues we face and the health of our water."

Another controversial stance Caldwell took during session last year was his vote against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Caldwell, a Second Amendment purist, voted against the majority of his party.

He said the limited time span to debate and the "technical glitches" kept him from voting in favor of the bill which, among other things, approved a three-day waiting period and raised the gun purchasing age from 18 to 21.

As soon as the bill was signed into law, the National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit to block the age provision. The NRA's first endorsement of 2018 was awarded to Caldwell, who maintains an "A+" rating.

"It's not a Second Amendment question," he said. "The problem is mental health. When you look at the instances we deal with, the two common factors are: they happen in gun-free zones and they are almost always perpetrated by a person with a diagnosed history of mental illness."

Caldwell's campaign has focused in on his passion for the Second Amendment. In an internet advertisement, the candidate sits in the back of a pick-up truck, shotgun in hand. "I like guns. I support the Second Amendment. I support our president. I'm endorsed by the NRA," he says.
"It's a very traditional thing to do, to enjoy shooting sports," Caldwell said in an interview during a recent shooting trip at a property in Monticello. "People seem to connect with that."

Caldwell also prides himself on being a "family man," and prominently features photos and videos of his wife and daughter on his campaign website.

His wife, Yvonne, is a teacher in Lee County. She says her husband's "core belief of family values" is what makes him able to lead and empathize with others.

Peers like Rep. Jayer Williamson say that even on late nights in the capital, Caldwell will FaceTime with Ava, and read her a bedtime story. On Sundays, he makes an effort to be home in Fort Myers to spend time with family and attend church.

Yvonne says she sees his strong-willed personality and leadership skills come through in their daughter, who they took to the polls on primary day.

"If he has to stand it alone, he'll stand it alone," she said. "We need individuals who are not afraid to stand up and challenge either side. I see that in my daughter, which I encourage."

She added that her career as a teacher has given her perspective on what matters to the future of Florida's children, as well as what is crucial when it comes to school safety. She supports her husband's stance on the Second Amendment, she said.

It hasn't been easy, though. She said being in the political limelight has exposed the family to criticism on social media and "not-so-civil" comments. Yvonne says before people start typing a message, they should think about it from "the perspective of a wife reading the comments."

"If he wasn't the right person, I wouldn't encourage him to run," she said. "I tell him he has to earn my vote, too. I'm straight down the middle."

Caldwell's family values have been touted from one end of the state to the other — he's logged more than 90,000 miles in the silver Suburban-turned-campaign-bus he drives with political director Lance Barnett.

Throughout the course of his campaign stops, Caldwell has made promises to address some of the existing issues that current commissioner Putnam will leave behind, one of those being background checks for concealed-weapons applicants.

Putnam was slammed earlier this year after it was reported that for more than a year, the department stopped using results from an FBI crime database that ensures that those who apply to openly carry a gun in public do not have a disqualifying history in other states. The employee in charge of the program was unable to log into the system, which went unresolved for more than a year.

Both Caldwell and his opponent, marijuana lobbyist and Fort Lauderdale attorney Nikki Fried, say they want direct oversight about the safeguards and checks currently in place.

"We have that chance for transition in those two months between the election and inauguration," he said. "That's what that period is about — seeing those things and being satisfied that it's being done in a way that no one should get a license if they don't deserve it."

Caldwell and Fried also both take interest in medical marijuana, and would like to move oversight of its regulation from the Department of Health to the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Fried, however, has also advocated for legalizing smokable medical marijuana, which she says is the "will of the people" in a video she posted to Twitter Sept. 13.

In the video, Fried calls out Gov. Rick Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implores Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and Caldwell to respond.

Caldwell, who helped draft marijuana legislation in 2016, said he is skeptical of smokable marijuana for medicinal use.

"Straight-up smoking a plant is not how we deliver medicine," he said.

"It's because of dosing. They [oils and pills] have been tested and have efficacy. You don't have those guarantees if you are smoking the raw plant."

Caldwell says taking up issues like marijuana is important for agriculture since moving into the 21st century also means having fewer people involved with "traditional ag."

"We are becoming a more urban society," he said. "These questions require the ability to communicate their importance to voters who don't deal with it on a day-to-day."

He said he's taken a renewed focus to meet voters where they are, and making lakes, rivers and beaches a shared value on which he can build a conversation.

"Good policy making benefits all of that," he said. "We need to communicate the message."

Where does Matt Caldwell stand on …

Big Sugar

Caldwell, who has received large donations from the sugar industry, argues that the sugar industry is not the only source responsible for the pollution-related problems plaguing the state's water.

He says blaming the sugar industry is "ridiculous when you understand swamp drainage."

"I don't view them as any more or less sinful than the rest of us that live here," Caldwell said. "We all have some kind of impact on changing the environment."

In 2013, Caldwell was among many state leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who attended a weekend retreat at a ranch on U.S. Sugar's property in Texas.

Marijuana

Caldwell was an original co-sponsor of a bill from 2014 that authorized Charlotte's Web, one type of medicinal marijuana. The original bill decriminalized possession of marijuana and evolved into a production and sales model.

His focus then was on a "clear need for kids who had seizure disorders," he said.

Caldwell, like his Democratic opponent, is in support of moving marijuana oversight from the Department of Health to the agriculture commissioner's office.

Caldwell chooses not to address smokable medicinal marijuana or recreational use.

"I speak to a real need," he said. "Recreational use is for the voter to figure out."

The National Rifle Association

Caldwell, who has an "A-plus" rating and received the NRA's first endorsement of 2018, said it's "critical" for a candidate to have a perspective on the Second Amendment.

During session last year, Caldwell voted against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Caldwell, a Second Amendment purist, voted against the majority of his party.

"My understanding comes from a plain reading of the constitution," he said.

Concealed weapons permitting

Caldwell said the concealed weapons permitting process is one he wants to "review directly."

"I want to make sure I'm satisfied that the job is being done correctly," he said.

Putnam was slammed earlier this year after it was reported that for more than a year, the department stopped using results from an FBI crime database that ensures that those who apply to carry a gun do not have a disqualifying history in other states. The employee in charge of the program was unable to log into the system, which went unresolved for more than a year.

Red tide and blue-green algae

Caldwell, a self-identified environmentalist, says he is often frustrated by what he believes is a misunderstanding of how the red tide forms.

"The reason we had such a bad tide this year was Hurricane Harvey washing all of Houston into the Gulf of Mexico last year," he said. "When it gets near shore, it feeds off nutrient load coming from urban areas."

However, the blue-green algae is the creation of Floridians, he said.
"We've changed the landscape, and everyone who has nutrient load needs to be held accountable," he said.

Caldwell said that this session, he wants to do more to increase funding for conservation spending.

"Unfortunately, politics got in the way of that last year," he said. "I am eager to tackle that again."

Matt Caldwell

▪ Age: 37

▪ Political: Republican, eight-year veteran of the Florida House of Representatives, unsuccessfully ran for state senate in 2008.

▪ Professional: Before he ran for office, he was a real estate appraiser. He worked for the Lee County Republican Party in the early 2000s and was a campaign chair for Marco Rubio's campaign before running for office in 2010.

▪ Education: Caldwell attended local schools in Lee County as a child and went to Evangelical Christian for high school. He received an associate's degree from Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern State College) and a bachelor's degree in history from Florida Gulf Coast University.

▪ Family: Caldwell — a seventh generation Floridian — was born in Gainesville, where his family settled in 1826. His family moved to Fort Myers when he was 1. Caldwell is married to Yvonne, a teacher, and lives in Fort Myers with their 10-year-old daughter, Ava.