A year 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 the ballot,” said Steve 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 first-hand 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 assault-weapons 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 razor-thin 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 ex-felons 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.