By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Nikki Fried, the last Democrat to hold a statewide office in Florida, was selected Saturday to chair the Florida Democratic Party as it looks to recover from its latest disastrous election cycle.
Fried emerged the winner in a four-way contest at the Sheraton Orlando North Hotel in Maitland on Saturday, fending off a major challenge from former state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami.
Fried was elected as state agriculture commissioner in 2018 but did not seek reelection last year. She lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to former governor and congressman Charlie Crist.
Fried will oversee a party that has struggled with finances and voter-registration efforts, been eclipsed in the Florida Legislature and Congress and lost traction among Hispanic voters.
Following an intense campaign against Taddeo, Fried declared “the divisiveness is over.”
Fried said her goals are to end “30 years of losses” and turn Florida “blue again,” work to ensure DeSantis “is not president of the United States,” and elect more Democrats to school boards, county commissions and city councils.
“Regardless, if you voted for me or you voted for Annette, everybody has a seat at this table,” Fried said shortly after members of the Democratic Executive Committee voted to select her as their party’s leader.
Before the committee voted, Taddeo promised the panel she would “be there for you no matter who wins.”
Other candidates in the race for chair were activist Carolina Ampudia, who was a former head of the party’s Progressive Caucus, and teacher and Broward County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Hoye. Just before Saturday’s vote, Hoye withdrew his name and threw his support behind Fried.
Fried, who narrowly won the 2018 election, is a lawyer and former lobbyist who spent years advocating for the marijuana industry.
Fried replaces former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who resigned as party chairman in early January — two months after Florida Democrats suffered historic losses up and down the ballot.
DeSantis, viewed as a GOP presidential candidate in 2024, defeated Crist by nearly 20 percentage points and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio picked up a third term with a 16.4 percentage-point victory. Republicans also captured all three state Cabinet seats, secured supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and gained four congressional seats.
And the GOP in 2021 took the lead in voter registrations in Florida, upsetting Democrats’ traditional registration edge in the state.
The Republican Party of Florida responded to Fried’s victory in a press release calling the Democrat a “serial grifter.”
“Radical Nikki Fried who got walloped in the Democrat primary for governor will become the new face of a party that doesn’t even like her,” the release said. “That’s on brand for a party that clearly has no bottom.”
One of the first challenges for Fried will be to bring together progressive and moderate voices that haven’t always agreed on the direction of the state party, which has seen national party support shrivel.
Prior to Fried’s election Saturday, veteran Democratic political strategist Steve Schale said whoever replaced Diaz must have the ability to raise money, have donors’ confidence and understand the challenges in swing districts. He also predicted it will take take several election cycles to rebuild the state party.
“You need somebody who understands this is very likely the last political job they’ll ever have,” Schale, who backed Taddeo, said during a recent episode of the Deeper Dive with Dara Kam podcast. “Whatever work is done now … is probably not going to pay dividends for two or three cycles . … I would look to the 2024 cycle as kind of getting back on the field, rebuild a good base, register voters, kind of get the confidence of donors.”
Schale also advised Democrats to first focus on local elections and to stop outsourcing voter-registration and fundraising efforts, saying consultants’ “financial base is built on the idea that the Democratic Party is useless.”
In a Feb. 16 debate hosted by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, candidates seeking to replace Diaz also spoke about rebuilding the party by maintaining full-time staff and moving away from hiring consultants. Such efforts will require hitting and maintaining fundraising goals, they said.
Fried at the time said the party needs a full-time financier, similar to the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman. She also said the state party should set up a “leadership council” that would include legislators, members of the party’s congressional delegation, donors and activists.
“We know that the road to the presidency runs through the state of Florida. We know that Ron DeSantis’ blueprint for the state, he wants to take to Washington D.C. We are that stopgap. And so we’ve got to make sure that we are using all of our voices and all of our community organizing,” she said during the debate.