Nikki Fried says Florida voters were looking for something different when they narrowly elected her as state agriculture commissioner last November.
“As the first woman elected to this position and as the first Jewish female ever elected to statewide office, the people entrusted me with this office. (It) signifies that they wanted something new, a new hope for the state of Florida,” Fried said in a speech before the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee on Friday.
“I wasn’t chosen by our fellow Floridians because I looked like, acted like, walked in the same boots as my predecessors. I believe it was because I have a different vision for this department and the opportunities that we have to look forward in this state and to prepare for changes in the future and our challenges. And to make life better for all Floridians,” said Fried, the only Democrat holding a statewide office in Florida.
As head of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Fried has been an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana. She supports the new law allowing sick Floridians to smoke marijuana. The former medical marijuana lobbyist recently appointed an advisory panel to develop recommendations on making the drug more accessible to Floridians.
Her department is at the forefront of allowing Florida farmers to begin growing hemp. She predicts the crop will have a “revolutionary” impact on the state’s agriculture industry. Hemp is related to marijuana but has no psychoactive effects – but cannabidiol oil (CBD) is a hemp extract, and advocates tout its medical benefits.
Fried appointed the state’s first cannabis director to oversee the hemp initiative. And Fried says she is “hopeful” that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis will sign a bill that will allow farmers to begin growing hemp.
In other breaks from the past, Fried is the first member of the Florida Cabinet to adopt sexual orientation and gender identity workplace discrimination protections for the 3,700 employees in the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She also appointed her department’s first LGBTQ consumer advocate.
Fried says her department has revamped the agency’s concealed-weapons permitting program. She says Floridians can get their permits quicker now, while making sure each applicant undergoes a thorough background check. Fried herself holds a concealed-weapons permit.
In her speech, Fried says she is emphasizing the consumer-protection aspects of her department. “I’m tired of Florida begin No. 1 for fraud,” she said.
As part of that effort, her department did a recent statewide sweep of gas pumps, looking for illegal “skimmer” devices that steal customers’ credit card information. The sweep uncovered 259 skimmers.
New stickers are being placed on gas pumps, highlighting the department’s consumer help line (1-800-HELP-FLA). But the stickers also have Fried’s picture, which has drawn criticism.
A new law is expected to take effect July 1 prohibiting new stickers from having images. But Fried is unapologetic about highlighting the pump fraud issue.
“The point of the stickers is to know there is a name and a face attached to somebody who is going to fight for the consumer. And the fact that we’re still talking about this months later, shows that it’s working,” Fried told reporters.
Fried beat former Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell by 6,753 votes in the November Cabinet race. She says she is “grateful and humbled” by the experience, “knowing it could have gone the other way.
“So I want to make sure that every single day of my administration, every single day that I am in charge, that I am doing what is in the best interests of the citizens of our state and not taking any single day for granted,” Fried said.