When thinking about the state government in Florida, it’s hard to see beyond the dark shadow that is Gov. Ron DeSantis. Earlier this week, DeSantis not only stuck by his claim that any school district requiring students to wear masks could be denied funds, but extended it to saying that any school board member or superintendent could be denied their salary. With the backing of Republican state legislators, DeSantis spent Tuesday continuing this threat, including threatening the superintendent of the school district in the state capitol and making an extended false claim that masks are unsafe.
With the Department of Health running cover for DeSantis’ acts and the state legislators acting as eager spear-carriers in his war against Florida’s own residents, it may be surprising to learn that there are still Democrats who hold statewide office in Florida. Or … Democrat. As in one.
That one is Nikki Fried, the Florida commissioner of agriculture. If that sounds like an obscure or unimportant position, it’s not. For one thing, Florida—like many states—is heavily dependent on agriculture as a source of revenue. (Check your nearest carton of orange juice.) But the commissioner’s role goes well beyond fighting against an endless stream of invasive species and trying to shepherd a weather-dependent industry in a state hit hard by the climate crisis. The full name of the department is actually Agriculture and Consumer Services, and that includes a lot. For example, just two weeks ago, Fried pulled the concealed carry permits for 26 Floridians involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection—because that’s one of the authorities that falls under her role.
In a state that’s becoming infamous for DeSantis’ pro-virus positions, Fried is one of several Democrats who have already announced they’ll be facing DeSantis in the next gubernatorial election. She’s possibly the only one in a position to buffer her state against some of his worst excesses. Last week we sat down for a talk with Fried to get her ideas on how to end the chaos and bring a little light back to the Sunshine State.
As might be expected, the conversation began with the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in Florida and DeSantis’ efforts to “aggressively do nothing” to get in the way of the virus’ spread.
Fried said, “We in the state of Florida are first in a number of good things, like beaches and tourism, but the last thing I want to hear is that we are first in the nation on the number of COVID cases. What our current governor has done is nothing. He has a hands off approach, pretending that the pandemic is behind us, and is unwilling to take any leadership.”
Two months ago, DeSantis pulled the daily updates from the Department of Health and despite a request from Fried, those pages are still missing. With DeSantis refusing to provide Florida with many of the statistics that were available a year ago and actively working to obscure facts about the situation, Fried and her team at the Agriculture Department have taken on the role of providing their own daily updates on the situation in Florida.
“This is information that people need to protect themselves, their family members, and communities. That would be something I would have never taken down,” said Fried.
However, Fried does say DeSantis was interested in seeing that Floridians got vaccinated … a very select few Floridians.
Fried: “Right now, he’s not even talking about vaccines. He did so at the very beginning, when there was an opportunity to get voters who are Republican vaccinated. He took care of the senior population and his Republican donors, and once those populations were done, he stopped talking about it. Didn’t even have a shot in public.”
That lack of advocacy extends to DeSantis’ refusal to wear a mask, which Fried calls a lack of leadership.
Fried said, “Masks have become a political divide, for whatever reason. Wearing a mask has become a sign of whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, and that should never have happened. We know that masks slow down the spread of the virus. Now a lot of local businesses and local government are having to step up to show leadership to get us through this."
The fact that Fried is now in the position of providing an alternative outlet to the limited information being provided by DeSantis brought to mind former Florida dashboard designer Rebekah Jones and her ill-fated attempts to provide insight before her computers were taken away and she was charged with illegally accessing state systems. Fried admitted that not being privy to internal information at the Department of Health, she didn't know the truth about claims by either Jones or officials in that department. However, she credited Jones for bringing up concerns about the accuracy of the numbers being reported out of the state.
“How are we supposed to be relying on these numbers? Because they were conflicting with hospitalizations and death certificates. We weren’t getting numbers from all our our nursing homes, or even from our jails. So what Rebekah did was say ‘There’s something going on here that’s just not kosher,’ and instead of trying to work with her to fix the situation, they went out and they fired her. Instead of working with her, they made the situation worse,” she said.
Turning back to DeSantis, Fried was asked about how much of the COVID-19 crisis in Florida could be laid at the feet of the governor and his policies.
Fried answered, “From day one, he panicked. He sheltered himself with very few advisers around him, did not take the pandemic seriously, gave out misinformation, was never upfront with the people of this state.”
She also pointed out that the single, brief, and incomplete lockdown in Florida came weeks after she and others had called for such action. However, when it came to the reopening memo DeSantis issued at the end of that short lockdown, Fried said she actually supported what the governor wrote: “It was methodical and science-based decisions driven by data that showed what could safely be opened back up. Then he just threw his hands in the air, ignored it, and opened up arbitrarily. If it wasn’t for our local governments who stepped up on curfews, masks and social distancing … but for them, the numbers would have been a lot worse.”
That brought the conversation back around to the current wave, and to the way in which DeSantis has now made it impossible for local governments to take the actions they took to save lives in 2020.
Fried said, “My biggest fear is that he’s now tied the hands of our local governments and corporations from being leaders here. That means the only way we have to address this crisis is individual responsibility, because state government, local government, and corporations can’t help. So my biggest fear is that, with this spike, what we’re going to see is what we would have seen last year without the local governments. Now their hands are tied, DeSantis is doing nothing, and there’s nothing to control the spread of the virus.”
That brought the discussion around to the way in which DeSantis, along with other Republicans, has been working to remove authority from local governments. In Florida, that includes a new rule that allows the state to step in if a local government is seen as doing anything that even resembles “defunding” local police.
“For the last few years, and even more so in the last year, we have seen all out assault on home rule and the role of local government. That includes overruling the people’s vote in Key West, were a local referendum outlawed large cruise ships because it was bad for the economy, but this governor — after getting a million dollar campaign check from the individual operating the port— reversed that vote,” said Fried. This was just one of several examples where local governments took action to protect the environment, protect citizens from COVID-19, or place some restriction on the sale or carrying of firearms, only to have DeSantis step in to quash their efforts.
Fried elaborated, “Local governments made deals to implement wind and solar energy, and now Gov. DeSantis has signed a bill to strip local governments of the ability to advance these issues. It’s heartbreaking to see that the people who are closest to the people are having their authority stripped away, when this is the whole point of local government.”
That led to more discussion of how Republicans in multiple states—from Texas to Missouri—have been working to take power from school boards, from town and city governments, from county authorities, and from every office outside the state capitol. Which came down to the question: “Why do Republicans hate small town democracy?”
“I’m a student of politics. I have a political science degree from the University of Florida, and we talked a lot about realignment, about parties changing who they are over the course of generations, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here now. The Republican Party that I knew growing up … less taxes, less spending, home rule, free market, that’s all gone. The people who are control right now in the state of Florida are doing just the opposite. … Time and time again, we’re seeing the fundamental core of the Republican Party just evaporating,” said Fried.
Fried, who calls herself a “free market Democrat,” points proudly to her role in creating a hemp industry in Florida in contrast to a very limited medical marijuana program that provides a monopoly.
Fried said, “I don’t know why Republicans feel that they now need to go in a direction that is just the opposite of every fundamental that is supposed to make them a Republican. They’ve taken it to such an extreme, that I have called Ron DeSantis an authoritarian dictator. Because that’s what we’re seeing time and time again. It’s his way or the highway, and if he doesn’t like what you’re saying, he’s going to pass a law and prevent you from saying it. That includes an anti-protest bill and a voter-suppression bill.”
And in terms that must ring true for many in Florida’s immigrant community, Fried laid out where DeSantis and others were taking the party and the state:
“This is building up to what people from Latin America fled their counties to escape. They came to our country for democracy. This is not democracy. This is authoritarian regime tactics, and we have to consistently stand up against this.”