With three weeks to go before Florida’s Aug. 23 primary and ballots already in some voters’ mailboxes, the top two Democratic contenders for governor are in the frenetic stages of the campaign trail — making their final pitch to voters in between fundraisers and meals on the road.
Only one, between U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, will go on to face Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both made the case for why it should be them during back-to-back televised interviews Wednesday.
Hosted by a panel of journalists from the Tampa Bay Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Spectrum Bay News 9 and Spectrum News 13, the interviews were filmed separately in St. Petersburg earlier in the day but aired Wednesday evening. Crist’s special aired first at 7 p.m. after he won a coin toss.
The special was not a debate, but both candidates were asked nearly identical questions about affordability, abortion, education, leadership and more, allowing for easy comparison of their answers.
Crist, who previously served as governor of Florida as a Republican and has been a fixture of Florida politics, has been considered the front-runner in the primary race, with more built-in name recognition and campaign cash. But Fried’s campaign has insisted she can’t be counted out, and she joined Crist on the TV airwaves by launching an ad earlier this week.
Crist had only agreed to one live, televised debate against Fried, which was held in Miami earlier in July. During that debate, both candidates took shots at each other — Fried attacking Crist for his record on abortion, and Crist attacking Fried for her prior donations to Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.
Unlike the July debate, both candidates largely focused on DeSantis while mostly avoiding attacks on each other.
What Crist said
Instead of running from his experience as a Republican governor, Crist embraced it. When asked why voters should support Crist despite him previously saying he was pro-life and appointing a Florida Supreme Court justice in favor of abortion restrictions, Crist said “nobody in this race has done more to protect a woman’s right to choose.”
He pointed out a 1995 bill that would have required a 24-hour waiting period, which he voted against as a Republican state legislator, his veto of a bill as governor that would have required ultrasounds prior to abortions, and his 100% rating from Planned Parenthood as a representative in Congress.
“As your governor, as a Republican, a reasonable Republican I should add, I vetoed a bill that was anti-abortion,” he said.
He also referred back to his work as governor on property insurance, when he called a special session to cut property rates. He criticized the special session called by DeSantis, saying it only made it harder for the consumer.
“They’re in the pockets of the insurance companies, our state,” he said.
When it comes to affordability, Crist said his plan would be to replenish the state’s housing trust fund and tackle gas prices by suspending the gas sales tax, in tandem with the federal government. He also said Florida could diversify its economy by drawing in the technology and film industry, as well as supporting the state’s environment.
If a Democrat is elected Florida governor, they would likely be facing a strong Republican Legislature. Pulling out his veto pen, Crist spoke about the power of developing relationships and the “carrot and the stick” in getting things done.
“You don’t always have to use (the veto pen) in order to be effective,” he said. “It’s very helpful to negotiate.”
He went over a hypothetical where a legislator had a project they care about and wanted to see it intact in the final budget. Crist said, in that case, he would negotiate with issues that he also wants to see passed, offering nonviolent felon voter restoration as an example.
What Fried said
Fried’s sit-down offered a closer look at her policy ideas.
When asked about the affordability crisis in Florida and the cost of housing, Fried said the state attorneys and attorney general should go after predatory landlords who are price gouging. She also mentioned the property insurance market and trying to keep homeowners out of Citizens Property Insurance, the government nonprofit. “We always know that Citizens is supposed to be the insurer of last resort, not the only resort.”
On the question of diversifying Florida’s economy, Fried mentioned expanding the film industry, manufacturing and legalizing cannabis, projecting the latter could bring billions into the state. Fried, a former marijuana industry lobbyist, said legalizing cannabis would bring in taxable revenue, create jobs, lower the cost on the criminal justice system and lower costs in health care by providing options outside of pharmaceutical drugs.
Fried said as governor she would create an agency dedicated to equality, including issues with the LGBTQ community, saying it was personal for her because her stepbrother came out to her decades ago.
“This community knows I am their greatest straight ally that they could ever have in a government position,” she said.
Fried also touted her record on abortion, a point she’s used throughout the campaign to juxtapose herself to Crist. She dismissed Crist’s endorsements from various abortion rights groups as “politics” and said she’s the only candidate who has been pro-choice her whole life. She said she’s met with a legal team to work on a constitutional amendment protecting the state’s right to privacy and that amendment’s coverage of abortion.
“We can’t wait for the Supreme Court to come back and say we don’t have that right to privacy,” she said.