In a tight race that spawned a grueling series of recounts, Democrat Nicole “Nikki” Fried claimed victory in the campaign for Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner on Sunday, based on figures from the state’s Division of Elections.
She defeated Republican Matt Caldwell by 6,753 votes, out of more than 8 million cast.
To the Democratic Party and thousands of Fried’s supporters, that means Fried will be the first female ever elected to serve as Commissioner of Agriculture in Florida, and she’ll be the first Democrat to hold that position in more than 15 years.
Also significant is that Fried, as Agriculture Commissioner, will be a member of the Florida Cabinet and will join newly-elected Attorney General Ashley Moody in the state’s highest Cabinet offices. So, two out of the three Cabinet seats will now be occupied by women.
However, challenger Caldwell, a state lawmaker, still has a pending lawsuit in Broward County in connection with the race.
And the formal tally of votes will not be declared until Tuesday, when the Elections Canvassing Commission meets to certify official returns. In addition, unsuccessful candidates can contest an election in a circuit court.
It’s unclear what Caldwell may or may not do.
But Fried, an attorney and former public defender from South Florida, is moving forward and has already assembled a transition team to move into the Agriculture Commissioner’s post.
Her historic win may set in motion a transformation of new priorities for Florida’s sprawling agriculture community, which has long been characterized as belonging to an Old Florida: from citrus crops to beef cattle.
Fried said in a news release Sunday: “This victory belongs to the people of Florida — you chose a new vision, one that reflects the priorities of the people. To everyone who didn’t vote for me, I will be your voice in Tallahassee too. I am humbled and honored to serve as Florida’s next Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.”
She added: “It’s now time for us to come together and work in union to govern for the people of Florida, and I plan to work my hardest so I’m ready to tackle the issues as your next Agriculture Commissioner.”
The Agriculture and Consumer Services department covers a wide range of services includes ensuring food safety and providing meals to students in Florida schools; managing millions of acres of state forest lands and controlling wildfires; protecting livestock and crop plants; and safeguarding consumers.
During the primary season, Fried got a surge of news coverage when Wells Fargo bank notified that she had 30 days to find another bank. Why? Apparently because of her strong ties and support for the medical marijuana industry.
An outspoken medical marijuana advocate, Fried wants to introduce industrial hemp to the Sunshine State as a key cash crop, and she made the issue a pivotal point in her campaign. She is an outspoken supporter for legalizing smokable marijuana.
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.
Fried, who has a law degree from the University of Florida, says she decided to run for the Agriculture position because Gov. Rick Scott has been steamrolling the issue despite overwhelming voter support behind it.
On the campaign trail, she also focused on issues ranging from reviewing the process for Floridians to obtain a concealed weapons permit and developing a solution to the algae blooms in South Florida, to addressing climate change and expanding farm-to-school programs that can make school lunch options healthier.
Fried has said she believes that the Agriculture Commissioner should not be responsible for issuing the concealed weapons permits and wants the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take over the responsibility.
While she grabbed the media spotlight over medical marijuana — boosting her campaign image — she also benefited from voters in Democratic strongholds. She grabbed a huge number of vote counts in South Florida’s Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and did better than Caldwell in large-population counties including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Fried also promised to lean on the Legislature to ban off-shore drilling and fracking, and as it turned out, voters passed a Constitutional Amendment Nov. 6 that bans offshore oil drilling along Florida’s coast.
Another state Constitutional Amendment to pass Nov. 6 – Amendment 4 – restores the right to vote to an estimated 1.4 million Florida felons if they’ve served all parameters of their sentences (and were not convicted of homicide or felony sexual offenses). Early on in the campaign, Fried threw her support behind the Amendment.
Fried has also said she will work to implement more protections for consumers and that more needs to be done to shield Floridians from scammers.
On election night Nov. 6, Caldwell was up slightly in the race and some media outlets called him the winner. But as more votes trickled in over the ensuing days, Fried took the lead.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, when the first set of unofficial totals were announced, Fried addressed a crowd in a Facebook Live video to declare herself the winner of the race against Republican challenger Caldwell. At that time, a frenzy of machine and manual recounts was about to launch.
Fried maintained the lead during those recounts and the final numbers came in Sunday. She still had the lead and her campaign again declared a victory.