TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In about a week, Florida's first elected female Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services will end her first and only term. Nikki Fried spent the last four years at the helm of the department, challenging the governor's policies as the solo Democrat in the Florida Cabinet.
Fried was elected in 2018, winning a surprise victory that had some thinking she was the future of the Democratic Party in Florida. Fried remains the only Democrat to win the state in about a decade. But after a failed bid for governor earlier this year, she's departing her post without a new office waiting. Even so, Fried was proud of her record.
"I ran on three principles — weed, water and weapons," Fried said. "Going through each of those issues, we accomplished more than I even anticipated, then we did so much more."
Fried said she diversified the office, elevated hunger awareness and helped the agriculture sector navigate the pandemic and five hurricanes. She also established Florida's hemp program after the state authorized the commercialization of the versatile plant in 2019.
Under Fried's management, she said, hemp had made a more than $370 million economic impact, created 9,000 jobs, and now has 19,000 permitted acres in 64 counties.
"This truly is something that's going to move— not just our state forward — but our country forward," she said.
Fried thinks the incoming Republican commissioner, former Senate President Wilton Simpson, will share in her vision of hemp's potential. She expected the former lawmaker would continue to support the program over the next four years.
Simpson recently met with Fried to get familiar with his new post. The two spent nearly four hours together, and Fried said she offered Wilton some "words of wisdom."
"This is not a partisan office," Fried said. "Every day, we wake up trying to make sure that we are advocating for agriculture, that we are protecting our consumers, that we are advancing their interests as a member of the Florida Cabinet. That's what I kind of related to him. This office is special."
Gov. Ron DeSantis might disagree on whether FDACS is a partisan posting. The Republican caught a lot of flack from Fried's office over the years. She regularly sent letters calling for DeSantis to do more on issues like affordable housing, criminal justice and marijuana. She asked federal officials to investigate the governor's migrant deportation program and most recently, state prisons.
After years of the missives, DeSantis said this in August:
"She had an opportunity as being the only Democrat elected state-wide to exercise some leadership and maybe get some things done," DeSantis said while speaking with reporters after a Cabinet meeting "Instead, she's used her time to basically try to smear me on a daily basis. That's all she does."
It wasn't always like this. Fried and DeSantis started their terms working cooperatively on issues like the environment. Their relationship seems to have taken a big dive during the pandemic as the two differed on COVID policies. DeSantis resisted lockdowns and mandates. Fried wanted local governments to have control and, at times, advocated for things like a statewide mask order.
"My biggest regret— there wasn't enough opportunities to really show the synergy between myself and the rest of the Cabinet," Fried said. "Instead, it became a Ron DeSantis vs. Nikki Fried fight every single time instead of trying to show the country what it looks like for two leading members of their parties to be able to work together."
Fried said her next step is to focus on the future. Another run for public office is possible, but in the more immediate future, she's looking at working with Democrats in DC as an expert on Florida, its Republicans, and its chief executive — who may be eyeing a presidential run.
"To be able to utilize my voice to make sure that we get a Democrat— whether its president Biden reflected in 2024 or another Democrat, and to make sure that I'm not leaving my state behind," Fried said.
According to her office, Fried's last day is Jan. 2.