Nikki Fried poised for a shake-up

Agri­cul­ture com­mish cam­paigned on ‘weed, weapons and wa­ter’

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Skyler Swisher South Florida Sun Sen­tinel

Florida’s new agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner is more likely to be seen stand­ing next to a mar­i­juana plant than stomp­ing around in cow­boy boots.

Nikki Fried emerged as the only Demo­crat to win statewide of­fice in the 2018 midterm elec­tions. Her plat­form could be summed up in three words: “weed, weapons and wa­ter.”

Now she wants Tal­la­has­see to know she’s ready to shake up the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and Con­sumer Ser­vices, the 4,000-em­ployee agency she was elected to lead.

Fried, a 41-year-old Fort Laud­erdale res­i­dent, knows she doesn’t look like your tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner. She grew up in South Florida, the most ur­ban part of the state. She’s the first fe­male elected agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner in Florida and the first Jewish woman elected statewide in Florida.

“I wasn’t cho­sen by our fel­low Florid­i­ans be­cause I look like,

sound like, or walk in the same boots as our pre­vi­ous agri­cul­ture com­mis­sion­ers,” Fried said dur­ing a re­cent news con­fer­ence in Tal­la­has­see. “I be­lieve it was be­cause of my vi­sion for this depart­ment.”

Her of­fice deals with much more than citrus and cat­tle. The Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment in­spects gas pumps, is­sues con­cealed-weapons li­censes, bat­tles wild­fires and ad­min­is­ters free and re­duced-price lunches in schools.

Fried said she will work to reg­u­late guns more closely, ex­pand med­i­cal mar­i­juana ac­cess and clean up Florida’s dirty wa­ter­ways.

Her stance on guns breaks with her Repub­li­can pre­de­ces­sor, Adam Put­nam, who once pro­claimed him­self to be a proud Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion “sell­out.” He earned an A-plus rat­ing from the NRA.

“The NRA’s in­flu­ence in my depart­ment ended when I got elected,” Fried said.

As a Demo­crat, she’s won’t find many like­minded friends in Tal­la­has­see. Repub­li­cans con­trol the Leg­is­la­ture, the gover­nor’s man­sion and the rest of the seats in the Cabi­net. Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ three ap­point­ments to the sev­en­mem­ber state Supreme Court gave it a con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity.

Cannabis and gun re­form

In her first few weeks in of­fice, Fried hired Holly Bell to serve as her cannabis di­rec­tor. She named gun con­trol ad­vo­cate and Mi­ami at­tor­ney Mary Barzee Flores as deputy com­mis­sioner for con­sumer af­fairs, a post that gives her over­sight of con­cealed-hand­gun per­mit­ting.

Au­dits and law­suits re­vealed that Put­nam’s em­ploy­ees had to meet quo­tas for hand­gun per­mits, and a lapse in back­ground checks meant 291 people with pos­si­ble his­to­ries of drug abuse, men­tal ill­ness or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence could have been able to legally carry a con­cealed gun for more than a year.

The per­mits were re­voked once the prob­lem was iden­ti­fied. Fried said she is re­view­ing the mat­ter to en­sure it doesn’t hap­pen again.

Fried broke ranks with the gover­nor on pro­tec­tions based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity for state em­ploy­ees. As one of his first acts as gover­nor, DeSan­tis’ is­sued an or­der reaf­firm­ing the state’s ban on dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, re­li­gion, sex, mar­i­tal sta­tus or dis­abil­ity. But the or­der did not in­clude dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Fried added sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity to her of­fice’s work­place pro­tec­tions. She also an­nounced she would hire a LGBTQ di­rec­tor to per­form out­reach in that com­mu­nity.

Some ar­eas ex­ist where Fried and DeSan­tis could find con­sen­sus, such as the need to clean up Florida’s wa­ter­ways.

Fried’s of­fice doesn’t di­rectly over­see med­i­cal mar­i­juana, but she has made it a sig­na­ture is­sue. The Florida Depart­ment of Health pro­vides most of the over­sight.

Fried said she wants to make Florida a na­tional leader in hemp pro­duc­tion. She also is es­tab­lish­ing a med­i­cal mar­i­juana com­mit­tee to sug­gest ini­tia­tives. She said she’ll make cli­mate change and re­new­able en­ergy a pri­or­ity in her depart­ment’s Of­fice of En­ergy, and she wants to cre­ate a uni­ver­sal school break­fast pro­gram that would pro­vide free meals to kids in the class­room.

Fred Guttenberg, a gun con­trol ad­vo­cate whose 14-year-old daugh­ter, Jaime, was killed in the Park­land school shoot­ing, cam­paigned with Fried and served on her tran­si­tion team.

He said he thinks she’ll be able to weather the crit­i­cism she’ll in­vari­ably face as the only Demo­cratic statewide leader in Tal­la­has­see.

“In a lot of ways, she re­minds me of what I ex­pected my daugh­ter to grow up to be — that tough­ness, that fight­ing spirit, that de­ter­mi­na­tion to do good. Maybe that is why I feel such a kin­ship to her,” Guttenberg said.

Fried has ruf­fled some feath­ers.

Mar­ion Ham­mer, the in­flu­en­tial NRA lob­by­ist, dis­missed Fried’s crit­i­cism that she had too much in­flu­ence on what hap­pened with con­cealed-hand­gun per­mit­ting.

“Some politi­cians are prone to mak­ing silly state­ments,” Ham­mer said. “And, when they do, they show that they have zero knowl­edge and in­sight on the is­sue at hand. This is ex­hibit A. Bless her heart.”

Fried’s mes­sage on guns, though, suc­ceeded in a year when many of her Demo­cratic coun­ter­parts came up short. Fried edged her Repub­li­can chal­lenger Matt Cald­well by just 6,753 votes.

From lob­by­ist to politi­cian

A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Florida law school, Fried worked in the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice in Florida’s 8th ju­di­cial cir­cuit, which cov­ers Alachua and five other coun­ties.

In 2011, she en­tered the Tal­la­has­see lob­by­ing corps, join­ing the pow­er­house law firm Colodny Fass. She started her own lob­by­ing firm in 2016, rep­re­sent­ing the School Board of Broward County, the med­i­cal mar­i­juana grower San Fe­lasco Nurs­eries and Florida’s Chil­dren First, a so­cial ser­vices non­profit based in Co­ral Springs.

She said she was in­spired to run by watch­ing the state wa­ter down a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment au­tho­riz­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana by bar­ring pa­tients from smok­ing the drug and lim­it­ing the num­ber of grow­ers.

Fried said she’s op­ti­mistic that she can put par­ti­san pol­i­tics aside and work with her col­leagues for the bet­ter­ment of the state.

“Gov­er­nance for the greater good,” she said. “That is why we’re here — get­ting things done for the people we came to this city to rep­re­sent.”


Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Nikki Fried is the only statewide elected Demo­crat in Florida.


Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Nikki Fried ex­am­ines a mar­i­juana plant in this photo posted on her Twit­ter ac­count.

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