TAMPA — In spring 2003, the culture wars came to the University of Florida.
A local radio station, KISS-105.3, refused to broadcast from a carnival run by the Pride Student Union, a group of LGBTQ students. The group was outraged.
In stepped UF Student Body President Nikki Fried.
Then a 25-year-old graduate student, Fried cut off all student-funded advertising from the station’s airwaves.
The next week, the station apologized, promising to broadcast at future Pride-related events. The Pride Student Union accepted the apology and thanked Fried, who in turn restored the station’s sponsorships.
Reminiscing on a July day in Tampa nearly two decades later, Fried, 44, smiled.
“See?” Fried mused to her staffers. “I’ve been this way my whole life.”
It’s the kind of story any campaign would be proud to tell: Our candidate, even at a formative age, even when relatively few were watching, stood tall.
Fried’s campaign to become the first woman elected governor of Florida focuses on her as an outsider.
The operation’s slogan is “Something New for Florida” — a clear contrast with political fixture Charlie Crist, her Democratic primary opponent. Fried’s candidacy offers something fresh, her campaign insists: Before she became agriculture commissioner in 2018, she never had held elected public office.
But examine Fried’s life closely enough, and it’s hard to see her as an outsider. Fried, a lifelong striver and meticulous planner, wants to be on the inside. And she believes the way to get there is by consensus.
“I like to break the system from the inside out, and make a difference once I get in there,” Fried said.
Consider the radio station story one more time. She took the funding away, but she gave it back, too.
Fried rises through the ranks at UF
Lawton Chiles, the former governor of Florida and a UF alum, once called his races for state Legislature “minor league” compared to the “hardball” campaigns that consumed student government in Gainesville.
The daughter of a conservative attorney and a liberal stay-at-home mother turned teacher, Fried was attracted to politics because it gave her a chance to bridge divides. But she wasn’t prepared for the environment Chiles described: She remembers wearing Birkenstocks and a Grateful Dead T-shirt to her first student senate meeting. Others wore blue blazers and bowties.
In interviews, Fried and her contemporaries described the scene as cutthroat, an old boys’ network with a direct pipeline into the upper echelons of Florida politics. A woman hadn’t been elected student body president in more than a decade. It was the kind of arena that taught a budding political junkie to build the right kind of connections and anticipate the moves of opponents.
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“If I wanted to rise through the ranks, I was going to have to just be smarter. Be more tactical,” Fried said. “Work harder. Be everywhere I needed to be. Make myself known.”
Eventually, Fried found her place — and her allies. She led the student senate by 1999, and began to plan a run for the student presidency.
Like the Florida Legislature, UF student leadership at the time was highly choreographed and hierarchical. As she moved into law school, Fried’s path to the top remained obstructed. She ran instead for the leading judicial post in student government. She won.
It wasn’t until 2002, when she was headed into her last year of UF law school, that Fried gained the support of enough campus groups to contend for the presidency.
The wait came with a lesson, said Josh Aubuchon, a fellow UF leader who had sided with Fried’s opponent in the race.
“You learn about timing, and timing is everything in politics,” said Aubuchon, a lobbyist in Tallahassee.
Fried won with about 52% of the vote. However, she went into office with a legislative minority — almost certainly the kind of divided government she’ would find herself in should she be elected governor.
She quickly brought opponents into the fold. She appointed Aubuchon to be her student lobbying director, where he represented the students at the university’s faculty senate.
“It would have been very easy for her to say, ‘You supported my opponent, I got nothing for you,’ Aubuchon said. “But she didn’t.”
Joel Howell, Fried’s vice president, said the Gainesville campus was a tense place for some students of color in the wake of 9/11. In one of her first major public appearances as president, Fried had to speak at the university’s one-year commemoration of the attacks.
Fried told the crowd that the anniversary was an opportunity for the campus to come together. She still regularly wears a heart-shaped red, white and blue crystal-studded pin her mother gave her before her speech.
The conciliatory approach paid political dividends. At the fall student senate elections, Fried’s Ignite Party won every available seat.
A lonely place for Democrats
For years, the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee was a comfortable place for Fried. After graduating from UF and spending a few years practicing as a public defender and foreclosure attorney, she roamed its halls as a lobbyist. She specialized in marijuana policy and foster care, areas that netted her productive working relationships — and unlikely friendships — with Republican legislators.
She reportedly befriended Matt Gaetz, the controversial Panhandle congressman, and in 2016 campaigned for Manny Diaz, then a legislator, who is today Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education commissioner. (Fried tweeted in July that the reports of her friendship with Gaetz are a “lie.” A campaign spokesperson said she made an hour’s worth of campaign calls for Diaz to further a lobbying client’s interests.)
After she won a longshot campaign for agriculture commissioner in 2018, Fried returned to Tallahassee. But as the only statewide-elected Democrat, Fried found that her corner office came with fewer allies.
In February, Fried strode to the public comment podium to address a state Senate committee chaired by Diaz that was taking up a 15-week abortion ban.
“Some of you I’ve known for 20-plus years. I know this is not something that you want to do,” Fried said, trying to make a personal appeal. “You were forced into this situation today.”
Some of the GOP lawmakers were baffled by the appeal. Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the bill’s sponsor, had proudly championed anti-abortion legislation in the past. Every Republican in the senate voted for the 15-week ban, and the bill became law.
It’s not unusual for the head of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to seem somewhat irrelevant. The office doesn’t come with the bully pulpit of the governor, or the legal power of the attorney general. The average voter probably recognizes Fried best by the name on Florida’s gas pumps.
Fried finds ways to relish her us-against-the-world lot in life. Above her desk in Tallahassee, she’s hung a framed New Yorker cover from November 2018 depicting women of color standing on the outside of a room full of white men, about to enter. The women are drawn in sharp relief, while the men are given hazy outlines. It reminds her that her 2018 win was part of a larger sweep, as progressive women across the country gained clout.
But as agriculture commissioner, Fried has governed more like UF Student Body President Nikki Fried than someone propelled to power by the progressive grassroots. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she is not.
She kept key career department staffers who had been appointed by Republicans — a move she said was necessary because of her 4,600-person agency’s broad scope. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for everything from inspecting consumable products to making sure theme park rides are safe.
“The things that we do inside the department are not partisan,” Fried said. “They’re really here to do good for the people of our state.”
Sometimes her independent streak can get her into trouble. On the day she announced her department was suing the Biden administration on behalf of gun-buying medical marijuana patients, Annette Taddeo, who was then Fried’s opponent in the governor’s race, derisively tweeted, “I’ve never sued the Biden administration.”
Howell, Fried’s vice president at UF, said she has always been this way.
“The first thing that she does is she tries to gather everybody together,” Howell said. “Sometimes it can be cumbersome, sometimes it can be messy, sometimes you get some negative press. But I think it’s a valid approach to democracy.”
Her biggest test yet?
A question hangs over Fried’s campaign, the same one that nagged at her during the years she spent waiting to run for the UF student presidency. What if this isn’t her time?
Unlike her opponent, Crist, a former governor who led as a Republican and is as close to a household name as one can get in Florida Democratic politics, Fried doesn’t have decades of relationships to fall back on. Crist first ran for statewide office in 1998, while Fried still was in college. He’s earned the lion’s share of endorsements, and fundraising dollars, in what has so far been a quiet primary.
With just weeks until election day, there are signs Fried’s campaign is lagging: Crist has outraised her nearly 3 to 1 this year. In this sprawling state, where expensive television advertisements are a key stage for politicians, money is paramount.
Fried’s campaign has been quick to point out Crist’s political liabilities. As governor, he appointed three of the conservative judges currently on the Florida Supreme Court. He’s shifted from conservative to progressive positions on numerous issues, including same-sex marriage. And if he loses this race, it will be his fourth statewide defeat.
Fried believes she can beat DeSantis — a popular incumbent governor who raised more money during one week of July than Fried has her entire campaign — because, she believes, she makes him personally uncomfortable.
In her run for governor, Fried has become a bellicose anti-DeSantis voice on social media. In various tweets, she’s called him “dictator Karen” for opposing marijuana legalization and said he is an “a--hole.”
“He’s going to be prone to making mistakes,” Fried told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in July. “He’s not going to know what to do with me.”
But Fried has her own vulnerabilities.
There’s the political: Her connections to Republicans like Diaz, Gaetz and Attorney General Ashley Moody — an old UF friend to whom she donated money in 2017 — may dampen progressive enthusiasm for her campaign. She has faced an ethics complaint for failing to accurately fill out her financial disclosure paperwork.
“Floridians would have a hard time pointing to a single thing Nikki Fried has done as agriculture commissioner,” the Republican National Committee said in a July press release.
Then there’s the personal: In the summer of 2020, police responded to a messy altercation between Fried and her then-fiancé, Jake Bergmann. No charges were filed. When Fried aides tried to confront their boss about her fiancé's behavior, she distanced herself from them, Politico reported at the time. Fried and Bergmann are no longer together.
And then there was this: Earlier this year, Fried tweeted that no sex tape of hers exists. It was an attempt, according to her campaign, to dispel a nasty personal rumor. But it may have raised more questions from the average voter than it answered.
Fried has less than a month to convince voters she’s truly got something new to offer Florida.
Her first television ad, which hit airwaves this week, shows the candidate striding through a grassy field filled with nameless, faceless suited mannequins. The dull masculine figures stand for the state’s 46 past governors.
“I’ll beat Ron DeSantis, and be a governor you can finally be proud of,” Fried proclaims.
Fried wants people to know she’s not a member of the boys club. She also wants it known that she intends to join it.