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No Mandate? No Problem

Why Florida’s 50/50 elections will drive pragmatism

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Ahead of last week’s elections, I had a feeling there might be recounts. I didn’t have the guts to openly predict a trifecta, though.

In the ultimate expression of Florida’s split-right-down-the-middle-ness, razor-thin margins have triggered recounts in not one, not two, but three statewide contests: the races for senate, governor and agriculture commissioner.

If the vote total holds, Republicans will have to find consolation in the Meatloaf axiom: two out of three ain’t bad. Rick Scott clings to a small lead over incumbent Bill Nelson in the senate race (at least at the time of writing). Aspiring governor Ron DeSantis is somewhat better positioned against Andrew Gillum.

Meanwhile, all indications are that Democratic candidate Nikki Fried will take the agriculture commissioner opening. Her lead keeps growing over Republican Matt Caldwell. If this holds, Fried will be the first Democrat to hold a statewide cabinet office since Rick Scott became governor.

Reform-minded people have reason to be optimistic, even if Nelson and Gillum don’t pull through. One reason: Fried, a cannabis lobbyist by trade, showed Democrats once again that marijuana is a winning issue. Gillum had $50 million and a phalanx of national Democrats and global entertainers backing him. Nelson called on powerful friends like Barack Obama. All Fried had was a simple promise: to treat Florida cannabis as an actual agricultural industry, and to ensure that those who seek to partake are able to partake.

Will Democrats ever learn that this is a winning issue for them? It took Nelson ages to be able to advocate for even medical patients’ right to smoke cannabis. Gillum messaged on the issue during the primary, but dropped it as he blanded out toward the general.

In 2014, the year that the medical cannabis Amendment 2 first went before voters, Charlie Crist lost to Rick Scott. The amendment itself fell a few points short that year, too. But if Crist had been willing to say, “Yes, cannabis is a medicine and I will ride or die with this amendment,” he might have reclaimed the Governor’s Mansion. Instead, he stood down and lost.

Hillary Clinton was quiet on the issue in 2016; Florida voters were not. They voted for Donald Trump. And they voted, over 70 percent, for medical cannabis.

I have a strong theory that Nikki Fried will be able to solve many of Florida’s problems related to cannabis policy. She understands the industry and the players in the space, as well as the rhetorical blocks that have impeded the free movement of capital there. And, like DeSantis and state Attorney General-elect Ashley Moody, Fried is a Holland & Knight alum.

DeSantis and Moody played to their bases in the campaign, but here’s the thing: they have to be able to deliver Florida to the President in 2020. If adult-use legalization is on the ballot, and if Amendment 4 restores suffrage to 1.5 million reformed felons, Trump loses.

There have been suggestions that cannabis be rescheduled federally. This would allow scientific research to ramp up, like in Israel (where ground-breaking cannabis compound research is currently being done). This would also make finance and banking available to the industry. Currently the cannabis economy lacks reliable access to banking, leading to unnecessary risks for consumers and companies. (In Florida, they are lobbied-up, vertically-integrated, and interested in dominating far outside the state.)

Look for movement on this front, finally. As someone who has advocated this for decades, I will say the conditions for real reform have never been more favorable.

I’m not expecting Nelson or Gillum to pull through these recounts, even as I keep refreshing results from the state division of elections. I am, however, expecting that the new cabinet will want to find ways to create free-market reforms that answer the questions that Florida voters will increasingly pose.

Criminal justice reform, “smart justice,” shrinking the customer base in the prison industry: these are things that the Koch Network, which backed DeSantis in the primary against Adam Putnam, wants. And these are things he will have to find a way to deliver.

Gillum as governor would have been very compelling in some ways, including his ability to veto the worst ideas of the Florida House. However, there is a good chance that he wouldn’t have been able to get his ideas through because of the FBI investigations and corollary messes.

It’s tempting to believe that DeSantis will govern like a mini-Trump because he ran like one. My theory is simpler: the GOP base was a means to an end, and once in office, DeSantis will be forced to adopt a pragmatism unforeseen on the trail. What’s more, I think he’ll like it. DeSantis has always seemed awkward when playing culture warrior (same with Jacksonville’s Mayor). It seems openly performative, theater for a base more in love with symbolism than results.

@aggancarski

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