Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is Florida’s only Democrat in statewide office and effectively, the head of the state’s Democratic party.
But even still, many Floridians don’t know who the agriculture commissioner is or what they do.
Now, three years after pulling off a historic win, Fried is making another run at re-introducing herself.
Fried announced in a video message Tuesday that she will seek the Democratic nomination to run for governor against incumbent Ron DeSantis, whom she’s publicly lambasted since the day she took office.
Fried has been a thorn in the side of the governor since she was sworn in, but as of late has raised her profile largely on her criticism of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She appears often on cable news and fundraises off responses to the signing of right-wing legislation. Her most recent filing period, which ended April 30, was her political committee’s most lucrative to date.
“Being a governor means not being bullish and believing that you are right,” Fried told the Miami Herald in an interview Friday. “It’s bringing experts together and making people in our state feel confident that we’ve got their backs.”
She says her run centers on the idea that it’s in the executive office that she could “have the greatest impact” on what she believes to be the root of Florida’s problems: the GOP’s 23-year hold on Tallahassee.
“In every turn, I have seen that the system is rigged, and working against the people,” she said in an interview. “And it’s time that we break the system, together. And after two decades of Republican governors, it’s time for us to try something new. And, you know, it’s time that we have leaders who will follow the will of the people ... and I think that that really goes to the crux of what drives me.”
For now, her only primary opponent will be one-term governor and current congressman Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, who announced his run last month.
Fried says that beating DeSantis in 2022 is not “the only way” to break the system, but that the status quo she sees under his administration “just can’t continue.” She noted that voters don’t want career politicians, and that she represents the fresh face to represent them, a similar tone she set in her run for agriculture commissioner, where she was up against Polk County Republican Matt Caldwell, whose personality and tendency toward cowboy boots fell in line with agriculture commissioners past. Fried, a South Florida attorney, broke the stereotype.
“As Ag Commissioner, I was able to make a crack in that system while cracking a glass ceiling,” Fried said. “We need to break the whole system and shatter that ceiling completely.”
The primary election is Aug. 23, 2022, and the general election is Nov. 8, 2022.
The two-minute launch video, posted about an hour after she filed her paperwork with the state, introduces her campaign slogan, “Something New.” The video pitches Fried as a relatable Floridian who was underestimated as a public defender, a foreclosure defense attorney and statewide candidate for agriculture commissioner, a race she won by a slim margin.
The video, which does not mention DeSantis by name, is a montage of campaign priorities like expanded Medicaid, a $15 hourly minimum wage, smaller class sizes, racial justice, environmental protections and legalized marijuana. Fried pitches herself as the candidate who can “crack the system” in Florida that she says has not kept voters’ best interest at heart.
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“I’m Nikki Fried, an underestimated Floridian like you, and I’m asking you to break the system by electing me the next governor of the state of Florida,” she says at the end of the video.
Fried, 43, has bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees from the University of Florida. After graduating from law school in 2003, she started at international law firm Holland & Knight and soon became a public defender in Alachua County. She went on to work as a foreclosure defense lawyer until she joined a private firm where she lobbied in Tallahassee for a range of clients, including foster children, school boards and, notably, the marijuana industry. Later, she started a one-woman lobbying shop named after her student government party at UF. Her main client was Broward County’s school board.
Fried kept her interest in the marijuana industry, which ended up being key to her three-pronged campaign for agriculture commissioner, a narrow campaign technique consultants lauded as being successful for its tight focus and bipartisan appeal. Expanding access to medical marijuana is not only popular with voters, but close to home for Fried, who uses medical marijuana to help with a sleep disorder. She is also engaged to Jake Bergmann, the former CEO of medical marijuana company Surterra, now known as Parallel.
Fried has her own financial interest in the marijuana industry as well. A last-minute amendment to her 2018 financial disclosure forms, first reported by blog Tallahassee Reports, shows that Fried changed the amount of income she received from her consulting firm Igniting Florida from $72,000 to $351,480 days before she filed to run.
A 2020 form says the major source of the firm’s income was Gainesville plant nursery San Felasco Nurseries, a medical marijuana license holder that sold in 2018 to Harvest Health & Recreation Inc. Harvest was recently acquired by Quincy-based marijuana giant Trulieve, and Fried listed about $200,000 invested in stake in the company on her 2019 financial disclosure forms.
Her campaign said the discrepancy in the numbers was a filing error of which they were not aware until recently.
“When filing the form in 2018, Commissioner Fried provided her attorney with her salary for the 2018 calendar year, roughly six months of income,” spokesman Max Flugrath wrote in a text. “We realized 2017 gross income, including all her business’ income and reimbursements, should have been reported, not just her salary ... when we were made aware of the filing error, we amended the forms to provide full transparency.”
Her roots in the marijuana industry could become a talking point for opponents, given Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz’s deep ties to Florida’s original marijuana program. Fried was a prominent marijuana lobbyist while Gaetz, one of the country’s most prominent pro-marijuana Republicans, was in the Legislature. The two have worked together on reforming Florida’s marijuana program, and Gaetz told Politico last month that he is confident they will “continue to do so.”
Gaetz is being investigated for potential sex-trafficking violations, which Fried called “shocking, and appalling.” Gaetz has denied the allegations.
The 15-month trek toward a nomination won’t be an easy one. While Fried squeaked out a win in 2018 after machine and manual recounts in some counties, she only won by 6,753 votes — a margin of 0.08 percent. Her name recognition certainly trails Crist, who first held elected office in Florida as a state senator while Fried was still sitting in high school classes at Miami Palmetto.
But there is still chatter about newcomers to the race, and plenty of time for them to enter. The Democratic field is considered wide open, and some grassroots organizers and political strategists say they are still waiting for the candidate who can close what they call “the charisma gap.” A recent St. Pete Polls survey showed Crist with a 55 percent to 22 percent lead over Fried with registered Democrats.
Miami State Sen. Annette Taddeo teased a run last week, and her political committee published a poll memo pitching her as a formidable candidate who could help rebuild the Democrats’ Hispanic coalition in the state.
There was also buzz about U.S. Rep. and former Orlando police chief Val Demings, who had initially rolled out a gubernatorial campaign-style video but pivoted to run against Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate instead.
Former state Sen. Dwight Bullard says the three years since Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign should have been spent capturing the energy and excitement Gillum created and putting it into the next candidate to run. But turnover at the state Democratic party and a loss of focus has stalled that effort,he said.
“There has been nothing to maintain that [energy] that I’ve seen from the Democratic party,” said Bullard, now the political director of the New Florida Majority advocacy group.
Taking on an incumbent
Millie Raphael, a Democratic grassroots leader and Miami-based political strategist, said her circles are still waiting for the right candidate to prove they can bring an energy that excites activists in the communities.
“The opportunity not only exists, but it needs to be grabbed with both hands,” she said. “The excitement will come from the belief that we have a candidate that can end the DeSantis reign. I’m not sure we are there yet.”
That said, some top fundraisers are putting their efforts — and their dollars — behind Fried, a candidate they say has what it takes.
“DeSantis will undoubtedly have a big war chest,” said Felice Gorordo, a Miami-based entrepreneur and top Joe Biden fundraiser who has committed to Fried’s finance committee. “Nikki has the charisma and track record to galvanize a movement.”
In 2018, Fried’s hyper-focused platform on marijuana, weapons and water quality secured her a narrow win. So far, much of her platform has been criticisms of DeSantis, which she says stems from a fear among Floridians that they don’t have a leader who has empathy for them.
Her tweets, which her campaign sends several times a day, are often short and allude to her run.
A tweet from last week that said “Florida deserves a Governor who isn’t running in a 2024 GOP POTUS Primary” garnered more than 1,500 retweets.
Fried says if she were governor in the last three years, for instance, she would have automatically restored the civil rights of Floridians who completed sentences for felony convictions, prioritized automatic voter registration and never proposed legislation that criminalizes protesters, the subject of a bill passed this year that cracks down on violence and property damage related to protests.
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she would have better supported local governments, carried out “an actual plan” for the vaccine rollout and been more transparent with COVID-19 data, information for which some news outlets had to sue the state to acquire.
The question becomes, can she harness her sharp 2018 focus this time? Or will she instead lean into an anti-DeSantis rhetoric, which could sow support among Democrats and bring in more donors?
Whether playing foil for DeSantis is enough to perform well in a primary or general election is left to be seen, some experts in the field say.
Beating an incumbent will not only take disqualifying that person from being able to serve but also making a case for yourself.
“Just being the ‘anti’ isn’t enough,” Bullard said. “For the people most impacted by the policies DeSantis is passing, it’s a question of ‘What do you plan on doing as governor? How will you reverse and change?’”