By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A state lawmaker from North Fort Myers who is a real-estate appraiser and an attorney from Fort Lauderdale who lobbies for the medical-marijuana industry are competing in next month’s election to replace term-limited Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Unlike candidates in races for other Cabinet seats, Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried haven’t completely avoided each other as they campaign to run the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a sprawling agency that assists farmers and ranchers, manages public lands, inspects amusement park rides, ensures food safety and oversees concealed-weapons licenses.
Fried and Caldwell offer differing views on issues such as President Donald Trump’s handling of the redrawn North American Free Trade Agreement, the state’s management of concealed-weapons licenses and how to move forward with medical marijuana.
Caldwell, trying to appeal to conservative voters with a pro-gun and anti-tax record in the Legislature while stressing his family’s roots in Florida and ties to the agriculture industry, considers “jobs and water” the priorities of the office.
“The job is public health, safety and welfare,” Caldwell said. “You want to make sure that people who are operating the gas pumps, that when you want a gallon of gas, you’re not getting short-changed. When you go in to use the quick-service food, the fried chicken and the sandwiches there that they’re are in good quality. You’re looking at Publix, making sure the deli slicer is clean and watching out for consumers every single day. Outside of that, let the free market figure it out, and figure out what the consumers want, and meet those needs.”
Fried has stressed the consumer protection side of the agency and has appealed to progressives by focusing on expanding medical marijuana and the hemp industry.
Fried said running a Cabinet agency is more about providing leadership and judgment and who can advocate for the office than having worked in the fields.
“I come to the table wanting to be the new face of agriculture, with a new perspective, new innovation, new ideas of how to move our agriculture in a new direction,” Fried said.
Fried said a hurdle has been explaining to people that the agriculture commissioner is more than just agriculture.
The department monthly draws attention to its handling of the state “Do Not Call List” for phone solicitations, and Floridians often see the agriculture commissioner’s name on stickers affixed to gasoline pumps, which are certified by the agency.
A couple of key agriculture issues before the agency are citrus greening and the decline of the citrus industry, while also overseeing fruit imports at ports.
But even before Hurricane Michael took attention away from the Nov. 6 elections, Caldwell and Fried struggled to be heard over the din of ads in the races for governor and U.S. Senate and on constitutional amendments dealing with issues such as gambling and the restoration of voting rights to felons.
As with other Cabinet races — for chief financial officer and attorney general — political experts anticipate the agriculture commissioner contest could swing on how the top-of-the-ticket elections play out.
“In this election, political party may be a particularly strong voting cue for Cabinet offices, as many people may turn out to cast their ballot to signal support or opposition to Donald Trump and his policies without much regard to the specific person running for a particular office,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida.
Kathryn DePalo, who teaches in Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations, said party identification and turnout will be key factors and noted that there has been little publicity about Fried being the first woman nominated by a major party to run for agriculture commissioner.
“For the independent women voters, that might have made a difference if people were paying any attention to this race,” DePalo said.
Jewett said being a woman could also work against Fried as “as she has no traditional ties to agriculture in the state and some voters may feel she does not fit the mold of the traditional commissioner of agriculture.”
Fried has drawn some attention to the contest by announcing that two national banks — Wells Fargo and BB&T — have terminated her campaign account because of contributions tied to the marijuana industry. The banking industry has cited federal laws that make the sale and use of marijuana illegal.
Fried would push lawmakers to do more to carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in the state. But Caldwell said all the issues Fried desires would first require the federal government to ease rules against cannabis, which he supports and expects “in the next couple of years.”
Unlike some of the more anti-immigration rhetoric from the right, Caldwell has taken stances such as opposing implementation of an “E-Verify” system for employers to check the legality of workers. He pointed to concerns that people could be targeted by an “unaccountable” federal government through the program.
“It’s not just immigrants that would have to put in their application,” Caldwell said. “If you do universal E-Verify, every single one of us will to put it in. Sure, I’m a citizen. But what if somebody doesn’t like me. And they click the box, and now I can’t get a job until I prove otherwise.”
Caldwell, 37, a graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University, was first elected to the House in 2010 and traces his family back seven generations in Florida.
While in the House, he spearheaded water bills for former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and has been a go-to lawmaker on a number of environmental issues for GOP leaders.
Fried, 40, is a Miami native who received her bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees at the University of Florida, where she served as student-body president in 2002 and 2003.
As a lobbyist during the 2018 legislative session, she represented the Florida’s Children First advocacy organization; the Broward County School Board; and San Felasco Nurseries, which was one of the first medical-marijuana license holders in the state.
Caldwell came through a highly-competitive four-way primary to become the Republican nominee. Fried came out on top in a three-way Democratic primary.