The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has long been the department that oversees an agricultural industry belonging to an Old Florida – oysters and citrus, beef and dairy.
But this year’s race might change that.
An outspoken medical marijuana advocate, Democratic candidate Nicole “Nikki” Fried, wants to introduce industrial hemp to the Sunshine State as a key cash crop and is making the issue a pivotal point in her campaign. She is an outspoken supporter for legalizing smokable marijuana.
Fried, an attorney and former public defender from South Florida with a law degree from the University of Florida, says she decided to run for the position because Gov. Rick Scott has been steamrolling the issue despite overwhelming voter support behind it. Two years ago, voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that allows people access to medical marijuana, but the state has struggled to implement the law.
On the other side of the aisle, Republican candidate for Agriculture Commissioner Matt Caldwell has been a state House Representative from southwest Florida since 2010 and is a seventh-generation Floridian, which he often cites while on the campaign trail.
Caldwell is also a real estate property appraiser from Gainesville and graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a degree in history.
The department Fried and Caldwell are hoping to lead is enormous.
It employs an estimated 3,600 people, has at least 14 advisory councils, is responsible for maintaining hundreds of thousands of acres of state lands, regulating food safety and controlling prescribed burns. It also has a chief role in consumer protection, including regulating telemarketers and catching scammers. The Agriculture Commissioner holds a key position on the state Cabinet, and is among three elected leaders who sit on the Executive Clemency Board, deciding whether to restore convicted felons’ civil rights, including the right to vote.
Fried is a fervent supporter of Florida Constitutional Amendment 4 which would restore the right to vote to an estimated 1.4 million felons (except those convicted of felony sexual offenses or homicide). Caldwell told the Tallahassee Democrat he believes the current process for felons to get back their right to vote is “broken” and does not “adequately address the issue.”
Fried made headlines in August when Wells Fargo Bank told the candidate she had to find a new place to house her campaign finances because of the campaign’s financial ties to the medical marijuana industry. She held a press conference in Tallahassee to draw attention to the “unprecedented” move and called it “emblematic of what is wrong with our government and politics today.”
Caldwell’s advocacy for smokable marijuana extends to “If doctors tell me that’s the way to get it, then I’ll support it,” as he told CBS Miami’s Jim DeFede this month in the only televised debate between the two candidates.
But Caldwell is not entirely opposed to the cannabis industry. In 2014, he co-sponsored a bill that allowed physicians to prescribe a form of marijuana (“Charlotte’s Web”) that provides patient relief without the high which often accompanies the drug. Gov. Rick Scott signed a related measure into law.
Some of Fried’s key platform points include:
- A review of the process for obtaining a concealed weapons permit
- Tackling citrus greening
- Developing a solution to the algae blooms in South Florida
- Expanding the Farm-to-School programs that make school lunch options healthier
- Regulating food and water safety
- Addressing climate change and sea-level rise
Fried has been endorsed by multiple news outlets throughout the state, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. She’s also cinched endorsements from high-level public officials such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Caldwell’s top campaign platform points include:
- Jobs, taxes and bureaucracy
- Water and environment
- Criminal justice reform
- Foreign relations
- Human and Constitutional rights
Caldwell has an A-plus rating from and is endorsed by the National Rifle Association as well as other groups. He has secured multiple endorsements from legislative members such as Pensacola Rep. Frank White and Tampa Rep. Jackie Toledo and has the support of 18 Florida sheriffs.
Comparing their finances over the course of the race, Caldwell has raised far more in campaign contributions than Fried.
As of Oct. 28, he’s collected close to $1.6-million in cash contributions from his individual campaign account, and nearly $3.8-million from his political committee, Friends of Matt Caldwell, according to state campaign finance data.
Meanwhile, as of Oct. 28, Fried has gotten about $817,000 in cash contributions from her individual account, and about $992,000 from her political committee, Florida Consumers First.
The salary for the current Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam, is $128,972.
Fried and Caldwell have their disagreements. Caldwell is not as passionate as Fried about marijuana. Fried has jousted with Caldwell over his ties to the NRA. Caldwell buckles down on his record in public office.
But in the wake of Hurricane Michael, which destroyed parts of the North Florida panhandle, Fried and Caldwell both agreed in a dual interview with the Tallahassee Democrat that the Agriculture Commissioner must prioritize aid to those areas.
“We have a long road ahead of us but the great thing about the state of Florida is that we do come together during recoveries,” Fried told the Tallahassee Democrat. “This isn’t our first hurricane; won’t be our last. There’s always ways to improve, but we definitely are in the right direction.”
Fried said the storm devastated the timber industry in the panhandle. Caldwell echoed Fried’s assessment and added cotton, corn, pecan tree groves and Apalachicola aquaculture to the list of damaged crops.
“I certainly recognize that Florida, frankly, is the world leader now in hurricane disaster and response. We train the rest of the country how to do it right,” Caldwell told the Tallahassee Democrat. “We’re going to have to continue to commit long-term to the recovery for these areas because they’re pretty well devastated.”
Robo-calls and concealed weapons permits
There’s a Consumer Services side of the department which includes the infamous Do Not Call list where residents can lodge complaints about robo-calls or calls from blocked numbers.
Fried believes that the Do Not Call list should be maintained by people who will actually answer the phone. She also wants the state to prosecute scam artists who profit from making the obnoxious calls. Fried said the Do Not Call list is one of the biggest issues voters ask her about after she explains what the Commissioner of Agriculture position is.
Caldwell is also concerned about the Do Not Call list and told CBS Miami that “it comes down to investigation and prosecution.”
“You have to be able to make it clear to these scam artists that they can’t do business here,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell says people plagued by robo-calls should be able to text the Agriculture Department straightaway with the number and other details to jumpstart an investigation.
The Commissioner of Agriculture also issues concealed weapons permits. The process landed in the media spotlight earlier this year with a Tampa Bay Times story that the department had stopped reviewing background checks for thousands of applications, which may have allowed someone to own a gun who legally should not.
Fried believes the Agriculture Commissioner should not be responsible for issuing concealed weapons permits and wants to move the responsibility to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“Obviously, the concealed weapons permitting (lapse) was a devastation to our state and to the trust that people had, and confidence in this department,” Fried told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Caldwell disagrees. He says the process should stay with a department that’s headed by someone voters can hold accountable.
“I think it needs to be accountable to someone that’s elected by the voters,” Caldwell said in the televised Commissioner of Agriculture debate. “You should not have it be subject to just bureaucrats. You should have an elected official who’s going to be held accountable, who’s responsible for overseeing it.”
In a final pitch for why they should be elected, Fried and Caldwell take two different approaches. Fried says she brings fresh eyes and spirit to the position.
“I’m somebody with a new perspective. I’ve spent my entire life fighting for individuals in the state of Florida. I want to make sure people in Tallahassee finally have a voice, whether it’s dealing with medical marijuana,” Fried told CBS Miami. “I come in with new ideas, new perspective, new approach.”
Caldwell says he has the experience and temperament for the job and that he’ll continue to prioritize issues such as the environment, agriculture and conservation.
“There are two separate visions that we have in this race and I’m certainly committed to the one that’s been successful over the last eight years and make Florida the most successful economy in the country and the world,” Caldwell told CBS Miami.