Fried Country

Since this is the last Folio Weekly ‘Politics’ column of 2018, it’s worthwhile to look back on the year that was. It was a year when many things we “knew” going in didn’t exactly come to pass.

At the start of the year, for example, the smart money was on Gwen Graham hugging her way to the Democratic nomination for governor and Adam Putnam glad-handing the base to get the GOP nod. That would lead, according to the pundits, to a classic Florida nail-biter election.

Those pundits got the last part right, at least.

A funny thing happened to Graham: She was the only Dem to get hit with real oppo from inside the tent. The Collective PAC went after her on behalf of eventual nominee Andrew Gillum. Then Jeff Greene, who seemed to enter the race solely to drive up the unfavorables of both Graham and former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, dropped some more on her.

All the while, Gillum’s polling numbers were a footnote, as he expanded the universe of voters without dealing with reportage on more than a fraction of the oppo that could have been out there, had he been taken seriously.

Gillum came through, came very close to winning the whole thing, and now he looks likely to be on the national stage for the next two years, as the Dems decide what their future looks like.

Meanwhile, Putnam got pole-axed by Ron DeSantis. Putnam had in-state connections from Withlacoochee to Nunyabizness; DeSantis had Donald Trump and a Fox News green room. Turns out the person who Knew Florida Best was a casino hustler from Queens.

DeSantis’ campaign was a ragged operation until local lobbyist Susie Wiles saved him (just as we predicted when she took over soon after the primary). The candidate avoided mistakes, and Gillum drowned in a sea of innuendo regarding municipal corruption in Tallahassee.

Though others were indicted last week, Gillum ultimately paid the biggest price. He would’ve been governor if the FBI hadn’t shivved him.

Then again, he would’ve been governor if he’d figured out a better way to message what was actually happening. But he had to walk a very thin line as far as presentation.

He needed, in baseball terms, to throw a perfect game. He was good through eight innings, but he couldn’t close. And it seems he might have known that all along.

Gillum, in defeat, and DeSantis, in victory, both ran transformational campaigns, but not for the reasons they might want to think. Both were heavily nationalized, both delivering red meat to the base with a wink and a nod, always conscious of the gap between the theater of the stump and the tedium of the policy slog. The mind-numbing minutiae that so often defines a given legislative session was utterly lost in a discussion of monkey-this-up and Hamilton and all the other mini-dramas that characterized this sh*tshow of a campaign season.

Ultimately, however, the most transformational candidate—and the biggest potential breakout star of the 2018 season—is the only Democrat who won statewide: Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Fried is uniquely positioned to be a voice for Florida’s most underutilized crop: in-state, homegrown cannabis. The vertical integration model upon which the current industry is predicated ensures that leaders in this market, such as Surterra and Trulieve, have the technical chops and the capital to compete globally.

As we move beyond reefer-madness paradigms and look at the industry’s capital opportunities, especially in a state with an aging population and in a regulatory market clearly keening toward rescheduling on a federal level, Fried’s understanding of the product and the industry means Florida businesses can compete with those in states that enjoy more entrenched industries.

Florida agriculture faces real threats. Mexican produce floods stores in our state, and our citrus industry continues to face declines in market share. Fried is going to have to find a way, somehow, to protect shelf space for what we raise here.

And for now, she’s stuck with concealed weapons permits in her office, and the “consumer services” side of the job: two things that Putnam had issues regulating, especially as he moved closer toward running for governor.

Fried will figure in many discussions on what’s next. Does she run for governor in 2022? Or for the U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio? In four years, the cannabis issue should be solved here in the Sunshine State, whether by the legislature or a constitutional amendment (and the inevitable attempt to neuter it with implementing legislation). She’s the one to watch right now, in terms of where the party is going and should go.

For my money, Nikki Fried was the politician of the year. It would not be at all surprising to see a few other young, smart pragmatists emerge to run statewide using her model, taking the lead and building a rep on an issue that sorely needed a champion, as cannabis did.