Cald­well is sweet on Big Su­gar, so he shouldn’t be agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - In Depth - BY CARL HIAASEN chi­aasen@mi­ami­her­ald.com

Last week, there were more buz­zards than tourists on some of the beaches in In­dian River County. The birds flocked there to eat the rot­ting fish that had died from the acrid out­break of red tide. Of­fi­cials had closed the pub­lic beaches be­cause of the stink and res­pi­ra­tory threat, but nat­u­rally a few cu­ri­ous hu­mans went to take pic­tures and videos.

Buz­zards are, in their own omi­nous way, pho­to­genic.

This year’s on­set of red tide has plagued Florida shores from the up­per Gulf to the At­lantic. In some com­mu­ni­ties life­time res­i­dents have never seen any­thing so bad.

Added to the toxic blue­green al­gae blooms spurred by pol­luted dis­charges from Lake Okee­chobee, the red-tide cri­sis has made the state’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing wa­ter qual­ity an eye-and-lung burn­ing is­sue in Tues­day’s mid-term elec­tion.

The races for gover­nor and the U.S. Se­nate have grabbed most of the at­ten­tion – all can­di­dates prom­ise that they’re anti-al­gae – but not far down the bal­lot is a con­test that could have an ir­re­versible im­pact on what our beaches and wa­ter­ways will look (and smell) like in the fu­ture.

A Repub­li­can named Matt Cald­well is run­ning for com­mis­sioner of Agri­cul­ture and Con­sumer Ser­vices, one of the sil­li­est mash-up ti­tles in Tal­la­has­see. The job is known as “Ag Com­mis­sioner” and is his­tor­i­cally pro­tec­tive of farm­ers, ranch­ers and citrus grow­ers.

Cald­well is a sev­en­th­gen­er­a­tion Florid­ian who has rep­re­sented the Fort My­ers area for eight years in the state House, where his main claim to fame is an A-plus rat­ing from the NRA.

His love of firearms is a fea­tured theme in some of his po­lit­i­cal com­mer­cials, and he broke with many of his GOP col­leagues to vote against the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School Pub­lic Safety Act, which tight­ened gun-pur­chase rules af­ter the Park­land mas­sacre.

Cald­well’s other avid in­ter­est is wa­ter pol­icy. He has been an un­flinch­ing apol­o­gist for Florida’s ma­jor agri­cul­tural pol­luters and was piv­otal in pass­ing the ter­ri­ble 2016 wa­ter bill that ba­si­cally put cor­po­rate farms on the honor sys­tem when dump­ing phos­pho­rus, ni­tro­gen and other fer­til­izer prod­ucts.

Three years ear­lier, Cald­well had suc­cess­fully pushed to ex­tend a law that spared pol­lut­ing cane su­gar pro­duc­ers many mil­lions of dol­lars in costs for Ever­glades cleanup.

His lead­er­ship in weak­en­ing wa­ter-mon­i­tor­ing rules has brought him the pre­dictable tor­rent of do­na­tions, es­pe­cially from the su­gar com­pa­nies whose ir­ri­ga­tion prac­tices have played an ex­e­crable role in the de­cline of the Ever­glades.

Cald­well is cor­rect when he as­serts that Big Su­gar isn’t the only ma­jor source of harm­ful runoff in state wa­ters – but now lis­ten to what he says about com­pa­nies such as U.S. Su­gar and Florida Crys­tals:

“I don’t view them as any more or less sin­ful than the rest of us that live here. We all have some kind of im­pact on chang­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Ah! So Big Su­gar is be­hav­ing no worse than any of us who’ve ever flushed a toi­let or switched on our lawn sprin­klers. The one teeny, tiny dif­fer­ence is that Big Su­gar has been us­ing the liq­uid heart of the Ever­glades as its vast, sep­tic drain field.

Cald­well has sup­ported build­ing the too-small reser­voir south of Lake Okee­chobee for stor­ing wa­ter dur­ing rainy sea­sons, in­stead of pump­ing it to the coasts. But as for clean­ing up the wa­ter be­fore it en­ters the lake, that would re­quire crack­ing down on some groves, farms, cat­tle ranches and fast-de­vel­op­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Noth­ing in Cald­well’s record sug­gests he would pur­sue more reg­u­la­tion. Just the op­po­site: He helped ex­tend by 20 years the dead­line for re­duc­ing phos­pho­rus lev­els in wa­ter en­ter­ing Lake Okee­chobee from the Kis­sim­mee River.

Sup­port­ers of Nikki Fried, his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, aren’t wrong when they call Cald­well “Big Su­gar’s can­di­date.” He and other GOP of­fice­hold­ers, in­clud­ing Gov. Rick Scott, have been guests on se­cret hunting trips to a Texas ranch on prop­erty leased by U.S. Su­gar.

Cald­well said he did noth­ing wrong and ex­pressed no re­grets.

Who­ever be­comes the new com­mis­sioner of agri­cul­tural and “con­sumer ser­vices” faces an un­prece­dented wa­ter cri­sis that has bat­tered the state’s im­age and beach­front tourism. Some sci­en­tists be­lieve this year’s ex­pan­sive red tide is a grim vi­sion of the fu­ture, made worse by warm­ing tem­per­a­tures and man­made nu­tri­ents be­ing reck­lessly flushed along the coasts.

Farm­ing and ranch­ing are vi­tal to Florida’s econ­omy, but noth­ing is more vi­tal than clean wa­ter. The last per­son we should elect now is an­other politi­cian whose march­ing or­ders come from well-con­nected pol­luters.

Un­less you want to make the buz­zard our new state bird.

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