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A clear choice for Florida’s next agriculture commissioner: A Times Editorial Board recommendation
The race for one of four state Cabinet positions.
An elevated view of a Hamlin orange grove at the corner of FL-62 and Duette Road in Manatee County in 2021.
An elevated view of a Hamlin orange grove at the corner of FL-62 and Duette Road in Manatee County in 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 10, 2022|Updated Oct. 13, 2022

The agriculture commissioner runs the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and is part of the Florida Cabinet, which is chaired by the governor and also includes the attorney general and chief financial officer. The role comes with a wide range of responsibilities, including the promotion and protection of the state’s critical agricultural interests. The commissioner also oversees energy policy, protects auto owners from unscrupulous mechanics, inspects the food markets and the rides at county and state fairs, makes certain that service station pumps are calibrated to deliver a full gallon of gas, and is generally charged with looking out for consumers. The commissioner earns $139,988 per year. The winner of the general election in November will take over for Democrat Nikki Fried, who ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic nominee for governor.

Related: Read the Times recommendations in other races.

Agriculture commissioner: Wilton Simpson

Wilton Simpson
Wilton Simpson [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Republican Wilton Simpson, 56, is a farmer, businessman, longtime state senator and president of the Florida Senate. While this editorial board has disagreed with him on some policies over the last decade, he’s the best qualified to run this important office.

Simpson spent most of his early adult life running an egg farm in Pasco County. He grew it into a successful business, helping boost his net worth to about $22.5 million, which also includes a company that owns IHOP restaurants in Florida, according to his financial disclosure. Talk to him for a few minutes, or listen to him while he is out in public, and it’s obvious he understands the concerns of farmers. You might not support all of his solutions to what ails Florida’s agriculture industry, but he knows the challenges whether they be citrus greening, Everglades restoration or the friction between housing development and preserving traditional farms and ranches.

In his 10 years in the Senate, including the last two as Senate president, Simpson has championed and supported tax breaks for farmers and agritourism and for using conservation easements to allow farmers to continue farming while also protecting those farms from development, preserving them as open spaces in a state with a growing population. He advocated for water storage north of Lake Okeechobee, critical to farmers north of the lake and to lakeside communities. He also pushed for $2 million to help low-income women pay for long-acting reversible contraception. The commonsense move passed the Legislature but was later vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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As Senate president, one of the most powerful jobs in the state, Simpson wasn’t particularly effective at pushing back when the governor overstepped, including on the recent efforts to redraw political districts. Ron DeSantis is an exceptionally powerful governor who does not hesitate to use that power against perceived threats or anyone who he thinks stands in the way of his agenda, Democrats or Republicans. So we understand it’s not easy for even a powerful Republican like Simpson to move the governor away from bad ideas, but if he wins the election and becomes one of the state’s only four Cabinet members — all of whom are supposed to be independent — he must continue to try.

Simpson is endorsed by the Florida Farm Bureau’s political action committee, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, 57 Florida sheriffs, former President Donald Trump and Gov. DeSantis.

He’s running against Democrat Naomi Blemur, who touts the fact that she is the first Haitian American to be a major-party candidate for a Florida Cabinet seat. Blemur, 43, is relatively unknown, especially outside the Miami area where she lives. She easily won the three-way Democratic primary on Aug. 23, but her campaign has had trouble getting much traction. Since the primary, she had only raised $14,500 and had only about $3,000 on hand going into late September. Compare that to Simpson, who had more than $14 million at his disposal, including money from four political committees — Florida Green PAC, Future Florida, Jobs for Florida and Friends of Wilton Simpson.

Blemur has worked in banking and runs her own consulting and management firm. She has been a commissioner on the North Miami Planning Commission, vice chairperson on the North Miami Commission on Women, and a member on a North Miami Community Reinvestment Act advisory committee. Blemur said she is the granddaughter of farmers and the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She wants to help small farmers gain access to more capital to help maintain and expand their farms and is a strong advocate for backyard vegetable gardens. She describes herself as a mediator who “works from the middle and chooses her battles wisely.”

Soon after getting married, her husband, Anis, was indicted and later pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft charges for stealing more than $1.6 million in deals mostly related to real estate. He is serving a seven-year prison sentence. Blemur, who if elected would be part of the state’s clemency board, says the experience gives her perspective on how to integrate felons back into society, including ensuring that they can get their voting rights back.

Simpson has the experience and knowhow to run one of the state’s most important agencies. In the Nov. 8 general election for Florida agriculture commissioner, the Times recommends Wilton Simpson.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.