TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida will be a key prize in the 2020 presidential election as Donald Trump seeks a second term in office, and the most prominent Democratic voice working against him is someone who wasn’t even on political radars two years ago.
Nikki Fried was a little-known lobbyist and former public defender in South Florida who just barely won her race for agriculture commissioner in 2018. For the Democratic presidential candidates who will soon be searching Florida for a path to beating Trump, Fried may seem an unlikely guide.
But as the only Democrat in statewide office, Fried is all they’ve got. She has energetically promoted key issues for Democrats, plastered her picture on gasoline pumps to boost her profile and tweeted aggressively at the president — all as part of an effort to revitalize the state’s battered Democratic party with a more combative style.
She’s been a clear contrast to the man she replaced as the state’s de facto Democratic leader — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who lost his bid for a fourth term at age 76 last year — and she’s even earned respect from political opposites.
Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters and a favorite punching bag for liberal Democrats, said Fried brings “more energy and enthusiasm” to the party.
“Bill Nelson was a throwback to a different Democratic Party. Nikki represents the more in-your-face, progressive wing of the party for sure, but at the same time, she’s able to roll up her sleeves when it comes to governing because she actually is quite competent,” he said.
Now, Democratic candidates are seeking her advice on how to win in Florida — an interesting position for a former political unknown who isn’t shy about handing compliments to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Fried certainly waves the flag on issues dear to Democrats — from abortion rights to equal rights for the LGBTQ community — but she also asked Republicans to sponsor her most important legislative priorities during her first year as a Florida Cabinet member, including bills to create an agricultural hemp program.
“We do our best to put state before party. That always comes first,” Fried said. “While it’s lonely being the only Democrat, there’s a lot of things that we’re doing that are bipartisan and we’re able to cross party lines to get some good things accomplished together. … On policy issues, it’s not so lonely because we are seeing eye to eye on a lot of things that are impacting our state.”
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates or their representatives have met with Fried; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has several times.
“Since taking office, she’s worked on everything from addressing the immediate threat of climate change to LGBTQ consumer advocacy, and she has done so with integrity and transparency,” Warren said in a statement her campaign provided to The Associated Press. “Nikki has proven to Floridians the difference it makes when we elect Democrats and elevate women.”
The advice Fried hands out is to focus on issues that concern Republicans and voters with no party affiliation instead of just preaching to the base.
“Find issues that matter to the masses,” she said.
It’s why she’s not afraid to praise DeSantis, a fierce Trump loyalist, on issues like the environment and medical marijuana.
But, as Gaetz noted, there’s the “in-your-face” side of Fried.
“For f(asterisk)(asterisk)ks sake, who does @realDonaldTrump think he is?!?” Fried, who is Jewish, tweeted after Trump said Jewish voters who vote for Democrats show “great disloyalty.” ”Nobody owns the Jewish vote, especially him.”
She also has said Trump “must be out of his mind” to shift money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create more immigrant detention centers as Hurricane Dorian approached the U.S. coast, and she’s featured in a state Democratic Party video using Trump’s crude language about grabbing women’s private parts to build a case that he and Republicans are anti-women.
“I’m so disappointed with what our current president is doing to the institution,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“He’s going to put the entire world into a recession by his tweets, which I just find is so irresponsible from somebody who is supposed to be not just the leader of our country, but the leader of the free world and somebody who is supposed to inspire the next generation,” she said.
Floridians may not universally know Fried’s name, but they’re certainly getting to know her face. Her department oversees consumer services, including regulation of gasoline pumps. One of the first things she did in office was to include a photo of herself smiling on the stickers stamped on every pump to certify their accuracy. Previous stickers had only the commissioner’s name and signature.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters, who is also a state senator, recognizes that Fried is the face of Florida’s Democrats but thinks DeSantis’ bigger platform and a high approval rating will win the day for Trump.
“I don’t think the governor would’ve been elected without the president’s support and help, and now it’s fitting to say that I don’t think the president could win Florida without having DeSantis. It’s a great payback,” Gruters said.