Elected Ag Commissioner Fried takes Gov. DeSantis to task for freezing her out

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

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried lit into Gov. Ron DeSantis during the Florida Cabinet’s first meeting since February, for freezing her out of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fried, the only Democrat serving on the three-member Cabinet, which rules jointly with the governor over broad swaths of state government, said that the DeSantis administration has not been transparent about its response to the disease.

“Let me be clear: There is no reason, in the midst of a global pandemic that we have seen over 2,300 Floridians perish, over 51,000 Floridians sicken, and over 1 million Floridians unemployed, that this Cabinet should not have met since February to consider state business and to receive updates on the state’s responses to COVID-19,” Fried said.

“Each of us received more than 4 million votes and was put here to do a job. In the most critical of nearly four months of this pandemic, this Cabinet has been left in the dark,” she said.

A POLITICO story on Wednesday described the political rivalry between DeSantis, a Republican, and Fried, “a Democrat who is on short lists to challenge the governor in 2022.”

Fried said she had sought briefings during the meeting by state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and other Florida Department of Health officials, plus Department of Revenue and Office of Financial Regulation officials regarding COVID’s projected $2.4 billion hit to state revenues through May.

She also sought briefings on food relief for children and recent wildfires, she said.

“But again, I didn’t see any of those on the agenda,” Fried said, her requests having gone “unacknowledged” by the governor, “let alone fulfilled.”

While she was at it, Fried noted that John MacIver, installed by DeSantis and Cabinet Republicans as the state’s chief administrative judge, hadn’t been confirmed by the Florida Senate but continues to oversee hearing officers.

She wanted to know whether the governor would reopen applications for the position.

DeSantis didn’t deign to reply, but opened the conversation to other Cabinet members. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis leapt to the defense of DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic.

“Thank God we have Gov. DeSantis and not Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo” of New York, Patronis said. Cuomo has won praise for handling the pandemic but DeSantis has criticized him for sending COVID patients into nursing homes.

DeSantis turned to Attorney General Ashley Moody, who said she’s had no problems getting information from state agencies.

“Great. OK, well that concludes this agenda. You guys have a good one. Take care,” DeSantis said, adjourning the meeting.

Fried was the only officer to appear in the Cabinet Room during the discussion. The others weighed in by telephone. The agenda included votes on land acquisitions, the state’s hurricane emergency shelter plans, and state borrowing.

DeSantis has been open about his disdain for what used to be monthly Cabinet meetings, arguing that the work rarely includes urgent matters. He and Fried have clashed from time to time during these meetings, and he kept her off a task force he appointed to plan the economy’s reopening.

He has maintained apparently cordial relationships with the Republican officers, however, and they both served on the task force.

Fried interjected Thursday as soon as DeSantis convened the meeting to request a moment of silence for the 100,000 Americans, including 2,300 Floridians, who have died from COVID.

The governor didn’t openly assent but paused for about seven seconds.

“Right, very well,” DeSantis said, and moved to continue the meeting.

Fried interjected again. “Governor, before we start the agenda I’d like to have a couple of moments just to have a couple of … ,” she began.

DeSantis interrupted. “We’re going to go through the agenda. If you have something to add, then we’re happy to do it. But I know we’ve got guys waiting and we want to get through these things,” he said.

Following the meeting, Fried told reporters the governor and full Cabinet have a constitutional obligation to work together.

“I’ve been saying from Day One, it’s a transparency issue. As we’re opening up our state, people are going to the beaches, people are going to restaurants, people are going to gyms — they need to be making personal decisions of whether or not to go out and be a part of this,” she said.

She noted questions about the accuracy of COVID data emanating from the administration.

“We need to be sure we’re having accurate data so people committing personal choices have all the information in hand.”