In Through the Out Door

Nikki Fried works the room

Democratic darling Nikki Fried flew into Jacksonville on a Sunday morning and spoke to exactly 28 people, and it was the smartest political play anyone made that weekend. She breezed in through the side entrance of the Hyatt Regency Downtown just after 11 a.m., flanked only by a single staffer, having driven there straight from the airport after campaigning downstate the day before. Like Chris Partlow, she gets there early.

Inside, the Florida Young Democrats amassed in a third-floor conference room for day two of their convention, and I was the only journalist there. Her exploits as agriculture commissioner have figured prominently in this column since its inception, and a formal sit was in order, now that she’s running for governor. I predicted this, three years ago—but, of course, everyone did. What no one could predict, however, was the way in which the universe practically conspired to create this moment for her.

No one could have expected for a random outbreak of an obscure disease to be handled so poorly by our government (and others) that it became one of the greatest public health crises in living memory or that a governor elected by the slimmest margin in history would basically melt down in public, wrecking his credibility so thoroughly that his only option was to give himself over entirely to the darkest impulse of our nature, creating a situation where the entire nation, if not indeed the world, is deeply invested in the outcome of this governor’s race. Nor could one have expected for the entire Democratic gubernatorial field of 2018 to all be basically finished in politics by this point.

Fried’s competitors, Charlie Crist and Annette Taddeo, had already spoken to the Young Dems on Saturday, leaving Fried to close things out herself, leaving a final impression before their straw poll was taken about an hour later. She won, by a slim margin, but not enough to score an official endorsement. That’s hardly unexpected, though, because this year’s governor’s race is not only the most important in Florida’s history, but it’s also arguably the centerpiece of what is already a highly-competitive midterm election cycle, with hard feelings on all sides and stakes that are positively stratospheric.

Primary season is all about money and messaging. While all the candidates are courting the big donors and attention-grabbing endorsements from what passes for power brokers in this era, Fried is targeting an underserved and woefully neglected segment of the Democratic base: rank-and-file activists of the sort that she once was herself. In her remarks, she insisted the national party do a better job of funding their down-ballot campaigns and making sure that their activists are better coordinated to reduce redundancy and increase efficiency: more resources, better utilized. That message appeals greatly to younger Dems whose personal experience with the party has generally involved losing races they should have won, most recently in 2018. In that case, the national party failed to capitalize on the uniquely transformative opportunity presented by Andrew Gillum, and the frustration literally almost killed him.

Fried presents the party with a chance to capture lightning in a bottle, twice. They will need that energy to win an election guaranteed to be an exercise in brute force and stamina. It’s an open secret that almost every policy and public utterance of the incumbent has been calculated specifically to set cold hearts aflame within the Republican base. If DeSantis isn’t out bullying children or trying to gaslight Nobel Prize winners, he’s pushing through one of the most ruthlessly reactionary right-wing legislative agendas this side of Longshanks. He’s got an interesting way of selling this stuff: hate-speech and gobbledygook, a perpetual joylessness that makes flowers wilt and babies instinctively cry.

By contrast, Nikki Fried is genuinely pleasant, although her contempt for DeSantis defies any pretense of kayfabe. To answer a question that many readers have asked, she does come off much better and more charismatic in person than on video. What she may lack in polish, she makes up for with personality. She actually seems like fun, which is so rare these days.

About Shelton Hull

Shelton Hull has been writing for Folio Weekly since 1997, but his resume goes back even further. He has written for almost every newspaper, magazine and zine in Northeast Florida, as well as publications like Orlando Weekly, Narrow GNV, Creative Loafing Tampa, Charleston City Paper, Ink19 and The Atlantic. He currently writes the "Folio Weed" column, which he created in 2018; he remains one of the widest-read and most influential cannabis writers in the world today. He also compiles material for "Weird Wild Stuff" column, and he previously wrote the legendary "Money Jungle" column for Folio Weekly from 1999 to 2009. He is a regular contributor to "First Coast Connect" on WJCT, as well as the Jacksonville Music Experience. He is a co-host of "The Contrast Project" and the "Bold City Civics" podcast. He is also a co-founder of the record label Bold City Music Productions. He can be reached at [email protected].