Fried poised for a shake-up
Ag commissioner campaigned on ‘weed, weapons and water’
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 like-minded 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 seven-member 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 examines a marijuana plant in this photo posted on her Twitter account. Fried has made medical marijuana a signature issue, even though her office does not directly oversee it.