TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Is Florida's next governor its first female? Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried thinks so.
She's trying to topple Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis in 2022. But the Democrat will need to get past a former governor, first.
It's why her campaign says it's time for "something new."
WHO IS NIKKI FRIED?
Nicole Heather Fried was born in Miami in 1977. The University of Florida graduate went on to practice law. Fried has worked in various legal fields, including corporate law and foreclosure defense. She also served for a time as a public defender. Fried became a well-known lobbyist for the marijuana industry before her run for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.
Fried secured the position in 2018, becoming the last Democrat in Florida to win a seat elected statewide. She defeated State Rep. Matt Caldwell by fewer than 7,000 votes in a race where voters cast more than 8 million. Fried is the first female to take over Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Though Fried's time in politics is shorter than her opponents, she touts several successes. The commissioner's gubernatorial campaign site says "as the only Democrat in Florida's cabinet, Nikki has been our voice in Tallahassee, standing up for our rights, our safety, and our democracy."
"She kicked the NRA out of weapons license permitting, legalized hemp for farmers, defended voting rights, and protected our environment," the page says. "Now, after more than two decades of Republican leadership in Tallahassee, Nikki is running for governor to break Florida's corrupt, rigged system and build a state that gives power back to us."
Fried has also opposed the 2018 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and pressed for national support to end produce dumping from foreign nations. During the pandemic, she secured federal waivers for students to get free meals.
WHY IS SHE RUNNING?
Following months of attacks against DeSantis, Fried said she made a final decision to run for governor during the 2021 lawmaking year. She called it "the most horrific session" the state of Florida has had.
Fried took issue with several high-profile, GOP-backed measures, which included new voting rules, the "anti-riot" law and a policy preventing trans females from playing in women's high school or college sports.
"This governor, in particular, doesn't care about all the people," Fried said. "He cares only about the ones that support him, that are willing to write the campaign contributions. I knew that I couldn't just sit back and watch."
DeSantis has called his opponent a do-nothing. While signing the budget last month, he said Fried had "done nothing" while in office.
"She does nothing," he said. "All she does is emote on social media, virtue signal to the small-dollar donors in California and New York."
Abortion: Fried is an outspoken pro-choice advocate. During the 2020 legislative session, she criticized the Republican majority for approving SB 404. It requires physicians have written parental consent before terminating the pregnancy of a minor.
"Denying young women the moral agency to make decisions about their own bodies doesn't promote better family communication, and it doesn't stop women from getting abortions," Fried said in a statement following the bill's approval. "All this legislation does is put young women in harm's way, both mentally and physically, for making a private decision afforded to them by the Florida Constitution. While lawmakers take this step today, they should be honest with Floridians about their ultimate goal: to strip all women of their right to make their own healthcare decisions."
A year prior, Fried also supported Sen. Lauren Book's efforts to create an amendment to Florida's Constitution concerning abortion law. In order to pass any new abortion policy, the amendment would have required half of the members in each legislative chamber to be female.
"Women will lead and win the fight to make our own decisions," Fried wrote on Twitter. "Women’s rights are human rights."
Economy: Fried calls the economy her No. 1 issue.
Much of Florida's revenue is generated from sales tax fueled by the tourism and hospitality industries. That ties the state, Fried said, to creating and supporting minimum wage positions. She believed Florida needed to diversify.
"That isn't going to bring everybody up," Fried said. "We need to be working on bringing in Fortune 500 companies. We need to be bringing in new industries to our state. There's no reason why Georgia has a film industry. That's billions upon billions of dollars that could be brought into the state of Florida."
She also believed the economy would benefit from further support of the state's education system and bolstering Florida's affordable housing programs.
"We continue to see the Sadowski fund being raided and not being a priority," Fried said. "Our entire economy is kind of the focal point and all of these other services have to come into play to feed into having an economy that is working for everybody."
DeSantis has labeled Fried a "lockdown lobbyist" and suggested if given the reigns during the pandemic, Florida's economy would be in worse shape following 2020's COVID shutdown.
"She's opposed us at every turn," DeSantis said on June 2. "All the good stuff we've been able to accomplish for Florida, she opposes it."
Environment: The commissioner has painted herself as a major environmental advocate. Spokesperson Franco Ripple recently told Politico that Fried "has unquestionably been the strongest environmental champion on the Florida Cabinet in the past decade."
Fried was the first to offer a state-level summit to address climate change since 2008. She has promoted legislative policies to improve water quality and energy efficiency in the years since.
The commissioner has also regularly requested large sums of money to address environmental issues within her budget. Lawmakers have often blocked those efforts.
Fried recently proposed a state-federal partnership with the Biden Administration supporting carbon farming practices. Ripple said it was "applauded by members of Congress and progressive national think tanks."
Critics have said Fried has failed to offer little more than words during her tenure. Susan Glickman, Florida director of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told Politico "we're way past the time for talk."
"While Commissioner Nikki Fried talks a good game about climate change," Glickman said, "our review of actual accomplishments do not add up to the rhetoric."
Gun Rights: Fried supports what she calls "common-sense gun violence prevention reforms."
She is a gun owner and holder of a concealed weapons license. But, in 2019, Fried defended a circuit court's ruling declaring a 2011 state law on gun rights unconstitutional. The policy would have penalized local officials who approved gun control measures.
"I've been clear that people deserve to make their voice heard on assault-style weapons in our constitution, without their right to cast their vote being infringed," Fried wrote in an opinion piece to the TC Palm.
The preemption law was recently upheld by the Tallahassee-based appeals court. Cities and counties now want the Florida Supreme Court to rule.
The commissioner also helped craft HB 809 in 2019, which the Legislature did not approve. The bill aimed to close loopholes in state gun laws. It would have reduced the term for a concealed weapons permit from seven to five years, required proof of safety training to renew a license and retained fingerprint records.
Immigration: Fried openly fought against Florida's "sanctuary cities" bill in 2019. The policy was signed into law and prohibited local governments from having sanctuary policies. It also required county jails agree to do the best they could to uphold federal immigration law.
Fried believed the policy would target "Florida's already vulnerable immigrant community -- both documented and undocumented -- and push them into the shadows."
"This bill would leave many Florida businesses with significant workforce shortages, and place unnecessary burden on an agriculture community still working hard to rebuild from devastating hurricanes in 2017 and 2018," she wrote in an opinion piece for the Tampa Bay Times.
LGBTQ: Fried has said she is a proud supporter of LGBTQ rights and that she will do everything in her power to stop hateful agendas.
During Fried's time in office, LGBTQ advocacy groups have lauded her actions.
Shortly after getting elected, Equality Florida applauded Fried for updating her agency's personnel policies to include nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
"This marks the first time an agency has guaranteed protection based on both sexual orientation and gender identity -- thereby extending protections to transgender employees," Equality Florida wrote online. "Following the massacre at Pulse nightclub, Equality Florida called on all state Cabinet members to extend protections to LGBTQ Floridians through executive action. Gov. Rick Scott committed but failed to follow through on that commitment."
Fried also established the position of LGBTQ Consumer Advocate within the Florida Department of Ag and Consumer Services. The appointee serves as the department's liaison to Florida's LGBTQ community.
Marijuana: Few Floridians have been as fiercely supportive of cannabis legalization as Fried.
During her time as a lobbyist for the marijuana industry, she helped legalize the use of smokable medical cannabis. She's also a medical marijuana card-holder, which she touted in a recent video post.
In her campaign for governor, Fried is now advocating for the legalization of recreational cannabis. She told us recently it would bolster the state's economy with a new industry, bringing in new jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
"This really is the greatest unifying issue of our generation, and it also can help protect our economy, especially during COVID," Fried told High Times earlier this year.
Critics knock her for being too close to the weed industry and allege her advocacy is for personal gain. Besides collecting income for her lobbying work, Jake Bergmann, Fried's fiance, founded Surterra Wellness, a multi-state medical marijuana company.
Florida's primary election for governor is Aug. 23, 2022. The general election is Nov. 8, 2022.