The politics of coronavirus: GOP governor snubs Democratic Ag Commissioner from key committee

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet meet in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. From left to right: Attorney General Ashley Moody, Gov. DeSantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Source: Governor's office.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ task force to “reopen” Florida after the COVID-19 outbreak got off to a partisan start on Monday, with the Republican governor excluding the only Democrat holding a statewide office from the panel’s executive committee.

DeSantis tapped Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, both Republicans, for the executive committee. But he did not name Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, an elected Democrat who serves with Moody and Patronis on the Florida Cabinet.

DeSantis did name two South Florida Democratic mayors – Dale Holness of Broward County and Dave Kerner of Palm Beach County – to the executive committee that will develop recommendations on reopening the nation’s third-largest state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that has expanded globally.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

As of Monday evening, the death toll in Florida stood at 823 and more than 27,000 infections, with Miami-Dade County now nearing the 10,000 mark in COVID-19 cases.

Fried, who is seen as a possible challenger to DeSantis in his 2022 re-election bid, slammed the governor’s decision.

Fried had previously criticized the governor for canceling a Cabinet meeting earlier this month, where she said the state’s top officials could discuss their strategy for dealing with the coronavirus that has largely shut down the state’s economy.

“This is sadly more of the same politics over state from the governor,” Fried said in a statement. “I was not asked to serve alongside my fellow Cabinet members on the task force, which has no voice on its membership representing Florida’s $137 billion agriculture industry.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Nikki Fried. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Fried said her absence from the panel “is deeply concerning given the impacts of COVID-19 on Florida’s second largest industry, and given the progress my team has made working with federal, state, local, and retail partners to reduce negative impacts to Florida agriculture.”

Fried also criticized DeSantis for “neglecting” to mention the state’s agriculture industry in his initial comments to the committee, which met in a teleconference.

Also absent from the executive committee were any Democratic legislative leaders. DeSantis did appoint the current Republican legislative leaders — Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton and House Speaker Jose Olivia of Miami-Dade County – and their expected successors, Sen. Wilton Simpson of Pasco County and Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor. The GOP holds the majorities in both the House and Senate.

Other members of the executive committee included Republican Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Jimenez, a Republican, and Syd Kitson, a developer and chairman of the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s public university system.

Gov. Ron DeSantis discussing measures to curtail the coronavirus in Florida.
Screenshot, Florida Channel.

DeSantis appointed more than a half-dozen prominent business leaders to the panel, representing interests such as Disney, Universal Orlando Resorts, Publix, AT&T, Florida Power & Light, Lockheed Martin and the health care, banking and financial industries.

Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, criticized DeSantis’ appointments to the panel.

“Gov. DeSantis included the usual suspects of campaign donors and DeSantis loyalists on his task force, but he deliberately overlooked the only statewide Democratic elected official and Cabinet member,” Rizzo said in a statement.

“Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried oversees the second largest economic driver in the state and she should have a seat at the table on any task force that has a role in shoring up our economy and reopening the state.”

Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Jacksonville Democrat who leads the Senate Democratic caucus, called Fried’s absence from the reopening panel “absurd.”

“The commissioner oversees one of the most critical industries in our state that puts food on the table of Floridians. How can she not be part of reopening FL?” Gibson tweeted.

In his remarks to the executive committee, DeSantis said he wanted to avoid the “ham-fisted restrictions” that some other states have used in dealing with COVID-19.

“I think all that’s counterproductive,” DeSantis said.

He said the state’s reopening policies should be focused on the fact that the coronavirus “is generally transmitted when you’re in close contact with someone, usually for a repeated amount of time and usually in an enclosed environment.”

DeSantis said the panel will be developing recommendations to deal with reopening stores, dine-in restaurants, hospitals, schools and other facilities while protecting Floridians from the coronavirus.

“So, how do you run a business where you’re minimizing the close contact between employees or between an employee and customer? How do you do it in ways where the environment is less conducive to transmitting this thing?” DeSantis told the panel.

“This is obviously a roadblock for the whole country. But I think if we bounce back in a very thoughtful, safe and efficient way, then I think we can minimize, or at least mitigate, some of the damage that has been done and hopefully have a path back where Florida can be the place that people are looking to for leadership in terms of that’s the way it’s done,” DeSantis said.

Florida Democrats earlier on Monday held a press conference by telephone to call for wider testing and the deployment of effective therapeutic drugs, which can lessen the severity of virus’ impact, before Florida reopens its economy.

“We have to pay attention to the public health experts. They’re telling us that, number one, we have to have a testing regime, a very strong testing regime,” said U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Miami-Dade Democrat who is the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Number two, we have to have some therapeutics. We cannot get our economy back going again unless we have the testing regime in place and unless we have a therapeutic so that we could save some people lives,” Shalala said.

Shalala said the federal government needs to take a stronger role in making sure states like Florida are receiving critical supplies, ranging from virus test kits to personal protection equipment, while not competing against other states.

“We need leadership from the government and in particular from Gov. DeSantis and from President Trump,” Shalala said. “But Gov. DeSantis cannot be weak. He has to be a leader. And that means he has to lay out very strong procedures.”

In a report to the reopening task force, Jared Moskowitz, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, outlined a variety of steps the state has been taking to increase its COVID-19 supplies, including more testing kits and personal protective equipment.

The state is currently expecting about 100,000 test kits that will help Florida determine how many residents are carrying virus anti-bodies that would indicate that they have had the disease but have recovered, officials said.

DeSantis cited a recent Stanford University report showing a high incidence of Californians carrying the anti-bodies, indicating more had been infected but had recovered with no complications, than previously expected.

He said if those findings prove true it will help Florida and other states concentrate their efforts on protecting residents who are more vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly and residents who have underlying medical conditions, such as kidney disease.