Trump endorses key Florida Republican before special session on gambling

The former president reportedly wants to bring slot machines to his Doral resort
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, listens to the State of the State address being delivered by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, listens to the State of the State address being delivered by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 11, 2021|Updated May 12, 2021

Donald Trump already knows who he wants to see as the future agriculture commissioner in his adopted home state of Florida: Senate President Wilton Simpson.

The former Republican president endorsed Simpson for the job in an emailed statement sent Tuesday from his political operation, the Save America PAC. Simpson is rumored to be interested in the office but has not announced plans to run.

“I hope he runs for Florida Agriculture Commissioner in 2022 — he will have my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote. “Wilton has been a great supporter and worked hard to get many good Conservatives elected in Florida.”

In a statement, Simpson said he has not decided if he will run for office again after his term as Senate President ends, but he added, “If I do run, it would be an honor to represent our farmers who deserve a strong voice in our Government.”

“President Trump has always stood with hard-working blue collar American workers and generational family farms like mine,” said Simpson, a Trilby egg farmer. “It is an honor that he would stand with me should I run for Agriculture Commissioner.”

Agriculture commissioner is an influential job in Florida but it’s not the kind of high-profile race Trump typically gets involved in as he tries to maintain his grip on the GOP. Before backing Simpson, Trump voiced his support for Virginia’s new Republican nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin, and he has urged for House Republicans to oust Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chairwoman and back Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Trump’s endorsement in this statewide race comes a week before the Florida Legislature convenes a special session to consider a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Indians — one that could benefit Trump’s hotel empire.

Lawmakers will vote on an agreement reached by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe that would allow the transfer of slot machine licenses within Miami-Dade and Broward counties. That would open the door for Trump to bring gambling to his struggling South Florida golf resort in Doral, an idea his son Eric Trump has pitched in recent months, according to the Washington Post.

Simpson for years has been involved in gambling legislation —negotiations that often take place behind closed doors and heavily influenced by special interests in Florida’s competing tourism industries. One of main drivers for license transfers, South Florida billionaire real estate mogul Jeffrey Soffer, held a fundraiser for Simpson last year on his mega yacht, the Miami Herald previously reported.

Simpson, though, last weekend told a Miami CBS station that license transfers won’t be addressed during this special session.

“I do not think that that’s being contemplated in this special session,” Simpson said. “I actually I know it’s not. We put out the call yesterday and it would prohibit that type of activity.”

Gambling in Florida is limited to tribal casinos and parimutuel betting establishments like horse tracks and jai-alai frontons. If approved, the $500 million gaming compact agreed to with the Seminole Tribe would allow for Las Vegas-style casinos at all tribal facilities and bring mobile sports betting to the state of Florida.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close ally of Trump throughout his presidency, at one point said he might run for Florida agriculture commissioner in 2022. However, Gaetz’s political future is in doubt following reports that the Department of Justice is investigating whether he had a sexual relationship with a minor and participated in sex trafficking.

The agriculture commissioner in Florida is Nikki Fried, a Democrat. She is considering a campaign for governor against DeSantis.

Simpson would likely generate widespread support from the state’s agriculture industry. This past session, Simpson helped steer the passage of a so-called Right-to-Farm bill, legislation that made it more difficult to sue farms for pollution.