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'Irresponsible and dangerous': Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried knocks DeSantis on handling of COVID, schools in one-on-one interview

On Your Side spoke with Commissioner Nikki Fried (D), a likely candidate for Governor in 2022, about issues ranging from the election to education to the economy.
Credit: FCN
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — With less than a week before the November general election, Florida political insiders are already looking toward 2022 and a gubernatorial race that could pit incumbent Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis against Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat.

Since taking office in 2018 following a tight race that saw her secure the position by a margin just shy of a percentage point, Fried has been a voice of opposition in a deeply red state capitol.

Last week, Fried visited Jacksonville to rally Dems at a down-ballot event featuring local candidates. 

Following the event, she spoke with On Your Side about a myriad of issues the state faces related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming election:

Where do you see the Democrats' chances in Florida this election?

Fried: "Fantastic. I see enthusiasm throughout our local elections, the vote-by-mails are record-breaking. There's enthusiasm throughout the state, and it's not just Democrats. As you talk to independents and Republicans, they're tired. They're tired of waking up every morning and seeing a president who is trying to divide us more, who's really hurt us in the international sphere, who's brought us down and creates anger."

"We need a president in the White House who's going to roll up his sleeves, come up with a plan, work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and get things done."

How important is turnout, not just for this big national election but for local races as well?

Fried: "during this pandemic, we saw how important our local elections are. We had so many of our mayors and city council members, they were the ones who stepped up when our Governor didn't hear the voice of the people."

"We have seen Republican legislative rule for 20 years now. And ruling on things that don't represent our state. Talking about abortion issues, education issues, health care issues, safety inside of our schools. Knowing that the state is so purple, and we are winning by margins of less than 1% in our statewide offices, yet are our state elected officials are governing to the right and governing for a very small sector of our state."

"Having a more diversified electorate of elected officials is so important to make sure that there's balance inside of government and really serving the whole entire state."

When the focus was on schools reopening, we saw the state issue a directive that districts had to open in-person. In Duval County, the local school district was forced to discontinue hybrid learning because of it. Did the state take the right approach?

Fried: "You saw so many parents worried, concerned about putting their kids back into school. And schools certainly not having the resources necessary to make sure there are hand sanitizer and separation of desks. And our school districts were at a crossroads. 

And then the governor waffled a little bit of, 'No, it's okay, you can do a hybrid approach.' And then when the school districts actually started to do that, and try to take care of their own communities, the governor pushed back and said, 'No, but if you do it that way, we're going to withhold dollars.'"

"Everybody wants our kids back in school. Everybody knows that the best way to learn is face to face, especially for so many of our kids that don't have access to broadband, and maybe family support at home for you know, for learning at home. But the matter is making sure that we're doing it safely, and that we're doing it so we're protecting our kids and not putting them in this herd immunity philosophy that it appears the President and the Governor are adhering to."

We heard the Governor in a Jacksonville press conference say he felt kids who test positive but are asymptomatic should be kept in school in-person. Your thoughts?

Fried: "Irresponsible and dangerous. We know that with kids, you don't always know if they have it. If they have a pre-existing condition, a lot of kids you might not know that. And so you put a child back into school system, even though they're asymptomatic, they're going to pass it on to their peers. 

And not only that, they're gonna pass it on to their teachers. And then they bring it home to their parents and to their grandparents and to their loved ones. So if a child is testing positive, putting them back into the school system, and putting them back into schools is definitely the wrong direction for our state."

In addition to the lives we've lost in Florida due to the pandemic, we know our economy has taken a hit. How serious has the impact been in other regions of the state?

Fried: "We're still in a freefall. And people aren't going to come right now. Until we get COVID under control, they're not going to come. We're going to continue to see that."

"Our economy is still suffering, especially in the Orlando and Central Florida area where tourism is such a pivotal part of that economy and has seen such a significant decrease. And a lot of these jobs are just not going to come back."

And you've brought up concerns you have about the way CARES Act money has been distributed?

Fried: "Well, let's start with where has it been distributed? Let's start off with the transparency. Even as of today, we have no idea where the CARES dollars have gone. The Governor keeps saying that all the money has been accounted for. We actually have written letters to the Governor asking for some of those CARES dollars to go to our schools, we know that there was a $262 million loss to our school systems because of our school nutrition programs being shut down during the height of the pandemic."

"Schools will have to make a decision to either decrease the availability of food or decrease the nutritional values of school meals or have to fire people. So we have asked for some of those dollars to go to our school districts that are suffering. We've seen other states that have used the cash dollars for child care, where parents may have had to go back to work, but they can't put the kids back in school."

"We don't know where the money has gone. There's been no transparency, no accountability. I keep hearing from our local counties and cities that have asked for additional dollars and are not getting a response back, and money has not been released to a lot of our counties. So I have a huge gripe with where the CARES dollars are going because I don't know where they are."

And when it comes to the state's unemployment system. Is fixing the problems with the system going to be a legislative priority? Is it going to be pushed?

Fried: "It better be. The fact is we had an unemployment system that was created in the previous administration, and it was designed to fail. Governor DeSantis knew that on day one. And during his transition, and through the course of the last year and a half, he knew that there was problems with the unemployment system. He knew that it was designed to fail and did nothing."

"I've called for an investigation with the Inspector General's office to look into not only the creation of the website and CONNECT but also the administration of it. We have to focus on fixing the system. The fact that additional contracts to the same provider were just given again. 

It shows that there's this is not a priority to the DeSantis administration, not a priority to the Republican legislature. They have sat derelict in their responsibility during the entire pandemic, never once meeting. 

No special session to deal with, not only the unemployment system but our budget, healthcare system, so many things that were impacting people's lives every single day. This Republican legislature and Republican governor, unfortunately, prioritized their own re-election over the people of the state of Florida."