1. Opinion

Times recommends: Nikki Fried for agriculture commissioner

EVE EDELHEIT   |   TimesNicole Fried, candidate for commissioner of agriculture, poses for a portrait in the Tampa Bay Times office in St. Petersburg on Friday, July 13, 2018.
EVE EDELHEIT | TimesNicole Fried, candidate for commissioner of agriculture, poses for a portrait in the Tampa Bay Times office in St. Petersburg on Friday, July 13, 2018.
Published Oct. 4, 2018

This is an unconventional year for candidates for state commissioner of agriculture, neither of whom has a deep, personal connection to Florida farming. One is a real estate appraiser and the other is a lobbyist for marijuana interests. Democrat Nicole "Nikki" Fried would be a stark change from the traditional mold of Florida's chief farmer, bringing more diversity to the state Cabinet and a new emphasis on the increasingly important consumer services side of the job.

Fried, 40, is a Miami native who served as student body president at the University of Florida, graduated with a law degree and worked in both public and private practice. When she became a lobbyist, she lobbied on behalf of school boards and foster kids and eventually marijuana interests when Florida passed a compassionate use bill in 2014, which paved the way for voter-approved medical marijuana.

The agriculture commissioner runs the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Fried would elevate the consumer protection role through improved regulation of businesses such as food stores and gas stations and by cracking down on scams such as gas pump skimmers and telemarketing schemes. She would undoubtedly be a strong advocate for the marijuana industry, which is touched by the Agriculture Department through regulation of pesticides and food safety. She vows to tighten the processing of concealed weapons permit applications, which has lacked adequate oversight under outgoing Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Fried wants to be an advocate for the state's ailing citrus industry and engage with sugar growers to find environmentally sound solutions to pollution problems. She supports establishing conservation easements to protect farms and environmentally sensitive land and promote sound water policy. She would defend public access to state lands.

Fried supports Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights for most felons. If it fails to pass, the new governor and Cabinet could create a new process by which people could regain their rights after completing their sentence, and Fried would support streamlining the clemency process.

Caldwell, 37, is a real estate appraiser in the Fort Myers area. Elected to the Florida House in 2010, he has chaired the Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee. He also favors conservation easements, and on water policy he advocates reducing the use of groundwater for drinking water by urban users through development of reservoirs and desalination plants. He thinks Florida has a future in crops besides citrus that are machine-harvestable, but he wants to help growers who have been hurt by citrus greening.

Caldwell opposes Amendment 4, but to his credit he would support automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent felons. He wants those convicted of violent felonies to go through an application process, though without the current five-year waiting period.

The Tampa Bay Times has reported how the National Rifle Association has wielded enormous influence in the Agriculture Department on concealed weapons permits and other issues of concern by the NRA's Marion Hammer. Caldwell has strong ties to the NRA, and there is no reason to believe he would run the department with any more independence than Putnam.

Fried has worthy ideas and a fresh approach, and she would be a strong advocate for consumers. For Florida commissioner of agriculture, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Nikki Fried.

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