‘Huge re­spon­si­bil­ity on my shoul­ders’

Mi­ami’s Nikki Fried is only Dem to win a 2018 statewide race

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Sweeney | South Flor­ida Sun Sen­tinel

Ayear ago, Nikki Fried was a lob­by­ist in Tal­la­has­see with just three clients. Now, she’s the face of the Flor­ida Demo­cratic Party af­ter be­com­ing the only Demo­crat to win a statewide race in this year’s elec­tion. It’s up to the new agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner to not just trans­form her de­part­ment, but also help Democrats find a way for­ward in un­charted wa­ters.

Fried, 40, uses the phrase “deep dive” a lot in a con­ver­sa­tion by Fort Laud­erdale’s New River, sit­ting at the chess­board ta­bles be­hind the New River Inn near her down­town home.

She’ll need to do a “deep dive” on the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s some­times slip­shod process to ap­prove con­cealed-carry per­mits.

She’ll need to do a “deep dive” on how the de­part­ment can play a more ac­tive role in Flor­ida’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try, when the De­part­ment of Health is cur­rently the lead agency on most as­pects of the law.

She’ll need to do a “deep dive” on her new agency — over­see­ing ev­ery­thing from agri­cul­ture to

per­mit­ting con­cealed carry li­censes to check­ing gas sta­tion pumps.

She’ll need to do a “deep dive” on just where the Flor­ida Demo­cratic Party goes from here.

“I have a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity on my shoul­ders,” she said. “Ev­ery de­ci­sion that I make, ev­ery pol­icy, I have got to make sure that I stay true to my­self, I stay true to what I ran on, and that I will help to di­rect the party on what went wrong in this elec­tion cy­cle.”

A year ago, the Mi­ami na­tive was a lob­by­ist in Tal­la­has­see with just three clients. Now, as the only Demo­crat elected statewide, Fried is the face of the Flor­ida Demo­cratic Party. She won when both an en­trenched in­cum­bent cen­trist and a fresh, pro­gres­sive ide­al­ist — Bill Nel­son and An­drew Gil­lum — both lost. Fig­ur­ing out why that is and how her suc­cess might be repli­cated could point Democrats to a suc­cess­ful path go­ing for­ward.

“She was very smart. The hard­est thing when you run down bal­lot — agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner, at­tor­ney gen­eral, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer — is that you’re lucky if peo­ple even know you’re on t h e b a l l o t ,” s a i d St eve Schale, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who ran Barack Obama’s suc­cess­ful Flor­ida cam­paign in 2008. “It’s im­por­tant to have a nice, tight mes­sage of why you want to run.”

Fried ran on stricter ac­cess to guns, looser ac­cess to med­i­cal mar­i­juana and crack­ing down on wa­ter pol­lu­tion.

“The is­sues were non­par­ti­san. Sev­enty-two per­cent of us voted on med­i­cal mar­i­juana; so it couldn’t be just Democrats, it had to be Repub­li­cans and in­de­pen­dents. Talk­ing about wa­ter qual­ity, that doesn’t just af­fect Democrats, it af­fects the en­tire state,” she said. “Gun safety is­sues — that’s not par­ti­san. I re­ceived a lot of sup­port from in­de­pen­dents and Repub­li­cans.”

There were other rea­sons be­sides the sim­ple and bi­par­ti­san mes­sage, though.

“She didn’t let her­self get vastly out-com­mu­ni­cated. Money mat­ters. You have to be able to talk to vot­ers,” Schale said. “And the fact that she’s a woman made a dif­fer­ence. If you look around the coun­try this year, there was one con­sis­tent thing for Democrats — women won.”

Fried will be the first fe­male agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner in Flor­ida his­tory. But in an elec­tion that saw a horde of fe­male can­di­dates, many run­ning in re­sponse to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” misog­yny and the #MeToo move­ment, Fried didn’t put gen­der at the fore­front of the cam­paign.

Six­teen years ago, she be­came the first fe­male stu­dent body pres­i­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Flor­ida in 20 years, with the mes­sage that it was time to let a woman take the reins. In her farewell speech, she asked the stu­dent body to not make it an is­sue in the fu­ture.

“That you have a good can­di­date who hap­pens to be a woman, not a woman can­di­date,” she said Wed­nes­day.

Fried spent eight years at the Uni­ver­sity of Flor­ida, com­ing away with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, a mas­ter’s in po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ing and a law de­gree. She grad­u­ated in 2003 and went to work for the Hol­land and Knight law firm, then joined the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice in 2006 in Flor­ida’s eighth ju­di­cial cir­cuit, which cov­ers Alachua, Baker, Brad­ford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union coun­ties.

From 2009 to 2011, she worked in fore­clo­sure de­fense as Flor­ida’s real es­tate mar­ket picked it­self back up from the Great Re­ces­sion. And then, in 2011, she joined the Colodny Fass law firm, a pow­er­house in the state capi­tol, and en­tered the Tal­la­has­see lob­by­ing corps.

In her first year, Fried had just one client — the Hills­bor­ough Area Re­gional Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity — ac­cord­ing to state lob­by­ing records. By 2016, she had 24, though she was just one of many lob­by­ists work­ing for some of the big­ger names on her plate, in­clud­ing Walt Dis­ney Co., Duke En­ergy and HCA Health­care.

In 2016, she started her own lob­by­ing firm and took her pri­mary clients with her — the School Board of Broward County, the med­i­cal mar­i­juana grower San Fe­lasco Nurs­eries and Flor­ida’s Chil­dren First, a Co­ral Springs-based so­cial ser­vices non­profit.

Fried said she de­cided to run for Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner be­cause, as a lob­by­ist for a med­i­cal mar­i­juana grower, she saw first­hand how the med­i­cal mar­i­juana amend­ment vot­ers ap­proved in 2016 was wa­tered down by the Re­pub­li­can Flor­ida Leg­is­la­ture with a raft of reg­u­la­tions that have re­sulted in mul­ti­ple law­suits on ev­ery­thing from a ban on smok­ing the sub­stance to the tight re­stric­tions on who can grow the plant.

As a lob­by­ist for the School Board of Broward County, she saw how the de­mands for an as­saultweapons ban by stu­dents at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School were ig­nored in the bill that the Leg­is­la­ture crafted in re­sponse to the mass shoot­ing in Park­land.

She knows there’s a lot of work to be done in re­mak­ing the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture and Con­sumer Ser­vices to fit her vi­sion, the vi­sion shared by the ra­zor­thin ma­jor­ity of vot­ers who put her in of­fice. The de­part­ment has been helmed the past eight years by Adam Put­nam, who de­clared him­self a “proud NRA sell­out” in his failed bid for the Re­pub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for gover­nor this year.

Un­der his lead­er­ship, con­cealed-carry per­mits have soared. Money taken in from the per­mit­ting process has re­mained un­touched in a trust fund, even as the Leg­is­la­ture has reg­u­larly swept other trust funds of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars that was sup­posed to go to af­ford­able hous­ing. Keep­ing that money in place has been a bat­tle reg­u­larly fought and won by the NRA’s lob­by­ist in Tal­la­has­see, Mar­ion Ham­mer.

Fried said that part of her deep dive into the prac­tices of the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture would be to look at whether that money could be spent on other pri­or­i­ties in the de­part­ment, such as ad­dress­ing food deserts, typ­i­cally ur­ban ar­eas in which fresh food can be hard to come by.

Fried said she has not yet had any dis­cus­sions with Ham­mer.

Fried’ll also have to work closely with other mem­bers of the Flor­ida Cab­i­net, all of whom will be Repub­li­cans — At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ash­ley Moody, Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Jimmy Pa­tro­nis and Gov. Ron DeSan­tis.

Fried and Moody have known each other since law school. Fried even do­nated to Moody’s cam­paign be­fore Demo­crat Sean Shaw en­tered the race. And as a lob­by­ist, Fried met Pa­tro­nis dur­ing his time in the Flor­ida House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. She said she met DeSan­tis for the first time Tues­day on the floor of the House.

“I re­ally do think there’s go­ing to be things we agree on, en­vi­ron­men­tal as­pects and wa­ter pol­icy. He’s also talked a lot about Is­rael poli­cies, things we can learn from the state of Is­rael on se­cu­rity is­sues,” she said. “On the other hand, I’d like to see what’s go­ing to hap­pen with clemency.”

The four statewide of­fi­cers form the clemency board, which up un­til this elec­tion de­ter­mined whether ex-felons could get their vot­ing rights re­turned to them. But vot­ers passed Amend­ment 4 this year, which will al­low most exfelons to get the right to vote back af­ter serv­ing their prison, pa­role and pro­ba­tion. Fried is con­cerned that the Flor­ida Leg­is­la­ture will, as it did with med­i­cal mar­i­juana, pass a re­stric­tive im­ple­ment­ing law.

But if Fried’s way for­ward is right, then Democrats have an­other win­ner in sid­ing with the 65 per­cent of vot­ers who passed Amend­ment 4.

Whether her way is the right way for Democrats is an open ques­tion — it’ll take a deep dive into the 2020 elec­tion to get some an­swers.

CARLINE JEAN/SUN SEN­TINEL

Nikki Fried will be Flor­ida’s first fe­male agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner as well as the face of the state Demo­cratic Party.

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