Florida’s sole statewide elected Democrat is a long-shot candidate in the race to unseat GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made a national name for himself as a popular figure in the conservative movement.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has accused the governor of using his office to pursue larger political ambitions and peddling culture wars that have distracted work on other issues facing Floridians.
“Everything [DeSantis] has done in the past three-and-a-half years is with the calculation of running for president of the United States on the backs of the people of our state, and that is not what a governor is supposed to do,” Ms. Fried told The Washington Times.
Ms. Fried isn’t the first political rival of Mr. DeSantis to accuse him of putting his perceived White House goals over Florida. But she also isn’t a traditional Democrat.
Ms. Fried received pushback from her party over a photo she posted of herself sitting maskless in an airplane, days after a federal judge ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in enforcing a mask mandate on public transport and planes.
“Peace out to the TSA mask mandate, but also peace and respect to others, whether wearing a mask or not,” Ms. Fried posted on Twitter, with a photo of her maskless in her airline seat.
The commissioner also made headlines for suing the Biden administration over a rule that barred medical marijuana patients from purchasing guns.
Ms. Fried has defended her actions by saying there was a disparity between medical marijuana users and those on other pharmaceutical pills and opioids who could still get firearms.
“This is something I had heard every single day as commissioner,” Ms. Fried said. “People having to choose between their access to medical marijuana or their Second Amendment rights.”
Ms. Fried, 44, was independently elected to become Agriculture Commissioner in 2018. She is the first woman to hold that position in Florida, and if elected, would be the first female governor in state history.
Before taking office, she was an attorney in private practice and a public defender, and has been a government advocate to expand the cannabis industry.
Ms. Fried, who is running on the campaign slogan #SomethingNew, is also facing former governor and Rep. Charlie Crist, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo in the Aug. 23 primary.
Mr. Crist, who served as a Republican governor of the state from 2007 to 2011 before switching to the Democratic Party in 2012, carries a strong lead over both his challengers, with more than 50% support in polls.
Mr. Crist had 52% support compared with 19% for Ms. Fried and 5% for Ms. Taddeo, according to St. Pete Polls, commissioned by Florida Politics.
The poll in early May, which surveyed 1,859 likely Democratic voters, also found that 24% of the electorate was undecided. It had an error margin of +/-2.3%.
Ms. Fried said Mr. Crist is a “Republican at heart,” calling him untrustworthy for changing positions on issues like health care and abortion.
On the Affordable Care Act, for example, she said Mr. Crist has modified his stance several times, going from opposing it to supporting it, to saying he wanted to tweak it.
Mr. Crist, a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, is considered one of the more moderate members of the House Democratic caucus.
“I don’t think Charlie knows who he is,” Ms. Fried said. “The Democratic Party does not trust him.”
Mr. Crist’s campaign pushed back on Ms. Fried‘s notion that their candidate is not a true Democrat.
“Charlie Crist is a proud Florida Democrat. He always puts the people first and is fighting for a Florida for all. Democrats attacking Democrats isn’t a winning strategy, either in the primary or the general election. It’s one of the reasons Charlie has overwhelming Democratic support in this race,” said Samantha Ramirez, Mr. Crist’s spokeswoman.
Ms. Fried said, if she is elected, her biggest priorities would be to tackle the rising cost of housing, enhance education standards, and expand access to health care.
On her first day, Ms. Fried pledged to declare a state of emergency on housing.
The Democrat would also seek to reverse some of Mr. DeSantis’s policies, including the new state law he signed that bans classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3, as well as tightening voting regulations.
But Democrats’ biggest challenge in their bid to oust Mr. DeSantis lies in the governor himself, who remains a popular figure in the state with an approval rating of 58% in a Morning Consult poll last month.
On Ms. Fried’s charges of Mr. DeSantis using his office for political leverage, the Florida Republican Party defended the governor’s record.
“Nikki Fried is easily annoyed by Gov. DeSantis’s great success,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. “While Gov. DeSantis has successfully navigated the state through unprecedented times, particularly with COVID, Fried was nowhere to be seen or heard. If her Democrat opponent Charlie Crist doesn’t respect her enough to even debate her, it doesn’t seem like Florida Democrats will support her either.”
Mr. DeSantis, frequently floated as a 2024 presidential contender, said his goal for the upcoming gubernatorial election is to not just win, but to turn Florida into a completely GOP-dominated state.
“If we win the election really big, people like you who analyze these things are going to say: ‘The days of Florida being a swing state are over. Florida is a red state,’” Mr. DeSantis told Fox News earlier this year, crediting his governance for the rise of conservatism in the state.
Florida is also the new home of former President Donald Trump, who has hosted several GOP members, candidates, and up-and-comers in the Republican Party at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The state also hosted this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, known as one of the biggest events for showcasing the conservative talent that could lead to future presidential runs.
Ms. Fried dismissed the notion her state has become a beacon for Republicans, citing an underbelly of Democratic resistance that could surface this year similar to Georgia’s Senate runoff races last year.
“That’s obviously a national narrative, and I know I speak with people on the ground every single day and they’re sick of that narrative and what’s happening,” Ms. Fried said. “Just because a very loud and vocal minority are here in the state of Florida doesn’t mean that’s where the rest of the people are.”
• Mica Soellner can be reached at email@example.com.
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