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Florida’s Nikki Fried gets national spotlight at Democratic convention. What does she have to say?

The state's agriculture commissioner will be introduced as a future leader for Florida Democrats today. But she's still mum on a number of important issues.
Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried speaks during the during the Governor’s Luncheon at the Florida State Fair in January in Tampa.
Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried speaks during the during the Governor’s Luncheon at the Florida State Fair in January in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES COMMISSIONER OF AGRICULTURE NIKKI FRIED SPEAKS DURING THE DURING THE GOVERNOR’S LUNCHEON AT THE FLORIDA STATE FAIR IN JANUARY IN TAMPA ]
Published Aug. 18, 2020

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried doesn’t know what she’s going to tell Americans when she addresses the Democratic National Convention tonight.

In normal times, thousands of rabid party delegates would be on hand to watch Fried’s time in the spotlight. Cameras would capture it live and beam her remarks into homes across the country.

But these are not normal times. This week’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee is not a typical convention. To showcase the party’s rising stars, convention organizers asked Fried and 16 other Democrats to individually record the same speech for audio/visual whizzes to splice into one video message.

“There are two unique lines that focus on Florida, but I have no idea what lines they’ve chosen from what we sent them,” Fried said. “I was honored and thrilled to do it.”

It’s not the kind of prime time moment that will turn Fried into a household name. But her inclusion makes clear party brass view her as the future of the Florida Democratic Party as she weighs a potential run for governor in 2022. No other Democrat from the Sunshine State has an announced role at the convention, which started Monday and concludes Thursday when former Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to accept the party’s nomination.

“She is our only statewide elected (official) and is in a role to speak out and be the face and voice of the party,” said Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party. “And she has stepped into that role and has done it exceptionally well.”

As a political newcomer just two year’s into her first term in office, Fried’s unlikely ascent to de facto state party leader says as much about Florida Democrats as it does about her. She engineered a sharp, disciplined campaign narrowly tailored to three talking points — weapons, weed and water — to victory in 2018. She was a rare bright spot for Democrats here in a year in which they narrowly lost the governor’s race and their longtime U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson.

She is the first Jewish woman to sit as agriculture commissioner, an office overseeing Florida’s conservative farming industry. Before her, Republicans held the office for two decades.

Fried has so far cautiously expended this newfound political capital. She waited until March 11 to endorse Biden in the presidential primary, when his victory was all but certain. Fried, who relies on her “gut” and a close-knit group of friends from her time serving in student government at University of Florida for political advice, said she knew when the timing was right.

“I don’t get pressured into making a decision until it’s the right decision to be made,” Fried told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview Monday.

That caution extends to taking stances on political debates that divided Biden and the other presidential contenders throughout the presidential primary. For example, asked about the Green New Deal, the progressive plan to halt carbon emissions and reverse climate change championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Fried said, “To be quite honest, I haven’t read it completely through.” She noted though that she published her own 72-page climate report and plan for Florida.

And on Medicare-for-All, the universal healthcare proposal that the Democrats fought over endlessly these past 18 months? “I didn’t dive into those policies,” she said.

What about a $15 minimum wage, a proposal that is on the Florida ballot this November? Fried said she is waiting on an economic impact report before she weighs in to see how it affects small businesses in Florida.

“I haven’t made a decision,” she said. “I haven’t gotten engaged on that at all.”

Today, Fried and 16 other Democrats from across the country like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, will speak about the Democratic Party’s vision for America. Like Fried, many of them are running governments in states hit hard by the coronavirus.

During the pandemic, Fried has presented herself as a Democratic counterweight to Gov. Ron DeSantis, offering her own reopening plan, calling on the Republican administration to mandate masks and coming up with her strategy to raise awareness about halting the spread. DeSantis has responded by ignoring her and canceling Cabinet meetings.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said he has watched Fried become “more woke” to the partisanship in Tallahassee after entering as an outsider who looked for political compromises.

“It has sharpened her,” said Smith, an Orlando Democrat. “It has made her more battle tested now than before and it’s made her much, much more aggressive in defending herself, her department, certainly Floridians who she represents.”

State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said her response to DeSantis has put her in the driver’s seat to run against him in 2022.

“They’re obviously terrified of this woman,” he said. “They haven’t had a Cabinet meeting in God knows how long and they didn’t invite her to the coronavirus task force.”

Fried is uncommitted so far on whether she will seek a higher office or run for re-election, but she is amassing a war chest for whatever comes next. She has raised $1.3 million since the start of 2019.

Her support includes powerful Florida corporations and lobbyists that have traditionally bankrolled Republican campaigns in Florida. Her political committee, Florida Consumers First, has received $25,000 donations from utility companies like Florida Power and Light and TECO and from Disney. Political committees tied to the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business interests have contributed at least $230,000 to her committee.

These contributions have given progressives reason to be skeptical of whether Fried would fight for their causes. Fried, who described herself as “very socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, said to judge her record, not her campaign finances.

“She’s taking money from all of the people we fight against,” said Stephanie Porta, the executive director of Organize Florida, a group that promotes and campaigns for social, racial, and economic justice.

Porta added: “We should be able to look at Republican and Democrats’ campaign finance reports and tell who is who.”

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