by Jason Garcia
Updated 3 months ago
On a mild afternoon in mid-January, Nikki Fried strode to the front of a banquet hall in Palm Beach County and looked out over the people who run the South Florida Fair. Someone turned down the country music that was playing over the loudspeakers and handed the most unlikely agriculture commissioner in Florida history a champagne flute filled with milk.
Fried, who turned 41 in December, is a Democrat from Miami best known for lobbying on behalf of the marijuana industry. Her audience — the fair’s trustees and directors — consisted mostly of white men with white hair, if they had any hair at all. Fried wore a heather blue jacket and matching pants; the fair boosters all had on tomato-red blazers.
Fried had taken office just 10 days earlier, succeeding Adam Putnam, a Polk County Republican from a family of citrus growers and cattle ranchers. She’d been asked to deliver the ceremonial “milk toast” marking the opening of the 17-day fair, which has been promoting Palm Beach County’s farming heritage for 107 years.
Holding her milk glass aloft, Fried looked for common ground with the crowd by telling them about the fun she’d had as a kid when her parents took her to the county fair in Miami. “This is definitely a first, toasting with milk,” she admitted.
Variations of that sometimes-awkward introductory dance have been playing out across Florida between Fried and business-people in the state’s ag industry since she squeaked into office over a better-funded Republican opponent by fewer than 7,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast. Overnight, the win elevated an obscure lobbyist into one of the most important offices in Florida — the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — where she will oversee nearly 4,000 employees and have regulatory authority over everything from telemarketers and travel agents to elevators and gas pumps.
Bill Nelson’s loss to Rick Scott in the U.S. Senate race leaves Fried as the sole Democrat holding statewide office and makes her the de facto leader of her party. People both inside her orbit and out are already expecting her to run for governor, perhaps in as soon as four years when she could challenge new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — another squeak-by winner last fall.
While Fried’s emergence may strike many as sudden and out-of-nowhere, she has been building toward this moment all of her life.
Heather Nicole Fried was born and raised in suburban Miami. Her father, Ronald, an attorney and history buff, talked about Reaganomics and ordered new encyclopedias every year. Her mother, Lori, stayed home to raise Fried and her younger sister.
When Fried was 9, her parents asked her what she wanted to do for her 10th birthday. She told them she wanted to see the White House. A few years later, she was elected vice mayor of her middle school, handing out friendship bracelets and coining a campaign slogan, “You have a friend in Fried.”
Her parents divorced when she was 13. Her mother, who became the sisters’ primary caretaker, found a job teaching at a preschool. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom at the time. My dad was the professional. And I saw kind of the imbalance of what happened during the divorce,” Fried says. “I just vowed at that point to always make sure I could take care of myself. And that I had to always have a career and be able to rely and depend on myself.”
At the University of Florida, Fried earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in political campaigning and a law degree. She became chancellor of the honor court, student senate president and student body president. She became a member of Blue Key, a leadership honorary group at UF to which generations of state political leaders have belonged.
After college, Fried cycled through a range of legal jobs in just a few years. She practiced commercial litigation for Holland & Knight in Jacksonville, became a public defender in Gainesville and then joined her father’s firm in South Florida, litigating foreclosure cases amid the collapse of the housing market.
Then, she says, “I kind of just woke up one day and said I wasn’t intended to practice law. I missed being part of public policy. I missed being part of Tallahassee. I had so many friends at that time who had been lobbyists or elected politicians. I woke up one day and scrubbed my resume and started making phone calls.”
Fried’s mother was then dating a general contractor named Robert Altman. Altman had been fraternity brothers at UF with Mike Colodny, founder of the Sunrise-based lobbying and legal firm Colodny Fass. Colodny says Altman forwarded Fried’s resume, promising that, even though she hadn’t done any professional lobbying, “she’s an all-star.”
And she was, Colodny says. Over time, Fried represented a range of clients, from property insurers to the Broward County School Board. She helped cement giant Cemex win a sales tax break on mixer trucks that analysts estimated saved the company as much as $4 million. She also helped foster care advocates pass a 2014 bill — and a $4 million appropriation to fund it — that ensured special-needs children under the state’s care had the right to court-appointed attorneys. Fried keeps a framed copy of the foster care legislation hanging on her office wall.
“She made it her task to know all there was to know about any particular subject she was involved in,” Colodny says. “She never went in half-assed or unprepared or flying by the seat of her pants.”
The biggest break of Fried’s career came in mid-2014. The Florida Legislature, hoping to head off a looming petition drive, passed the law known as Charlotte’s Web, which legalized the medical use of low-THC cannabis in Florida. A friend of hers from UF, an entrepreneur named Marc Meisel, called Fried, asking if she knew anyone at a Gainesville nursery that appeared to be one of the few in the state that could qualify for a license to grow marijuana. She did. San Felasco Nurseries was owned by Alan Shapiro, whose daughter had been a sorority sister of Fried’s at UF; the nursery did all the landscaping at their sorority house.
Fried connected Meisel and Shapiro, who formed a company to apply for a license. When they ran into problems with the Department of Health, they hired Fried to help them. That put Fried on nearly the ground floor of a nascent industry that was both intensely lobbied and high profile.
Fried helped San Felasco win its license, making it one of fewer than 14 licensees for all of Florida, and then began lobbying lawmakers to ease restrictions on medical marijuana — how it could be consumed, what it could be used for, who could prescribe it, where it could be sold. She worked with cities and counties to get dispensaries open.
There was so much work that Fried decided to leave Colodny Fass. She thought about joining San Felasco as an in-house lobbyist but decided to set up her own shop so she could focus on public education, foster care and medical marijuana, she says. She cheekily named the company “Ignite Florida.”
Two lawmakers and a lobbyist centrally involved in the state’s marijuana debates say Fried, while representing San Felasco, also urged legislators to limit the number of licensees who could grow and sell the product — a protectionist advantage for her client. But Fried says San Felasco didn’t fight to maintain the license limits; rather, she says, her client was most concerned about legislative micromanaging that was making doctors fearful of prescribing marijuana for fear of losing their licenses.
Fried now says that she, like DeSantis, supports opening up the industry to more companies, in hopes that doing so will lower costs and improve access for patients.
As part of her work, Fried traveled to industry conferences around the country. She kept running into many of the same people — including Jake Bergmann, an investment fund manager who founded and was running Surterra Holdings, another of the state’s early medical marijuana licensees and one of San Felasco’s competitors. They found they had a lot more in common than weed. They’ve been dating for a little over a year. “We view the world the same way. We both work hard at what we do,” Bergmann says. “I think we’ve turned the TV on twice in our entire relationship. We really enjoy talking about politics.”
At another cannabis conference in January 2018 at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, Fried began to think seriously about running for office — for governor. Trial lawyer John Morgan, Florida’s biggest marijuana booster, had decided not to run, and Fried felt there was an opening for a candidate who could tap into popular support for marijuana and exploit antipathy toward Donald Trump’s administration.
Friends persuaded her that seeking the governor’s office was too steep a climb. Fried considered running for attorney general but faced the prospect of a difficult primary against former Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw, who was already running and likely to do well with two important Democratic constituencies: Trial lawyers and African-Americans. That’s when she turned to the agriculture post. Fried decided she could make an agricultural link to marijuana while emphasizing the department’s lesserknown consumer-protection powers.
And there weren’t any other potentially formidable Democratic candidates standing in her way.
Fried anchored her candidacy around three issues: More accessible marijuana, cleaner water and stronger gun control. Between her campaign and a separate political committee, Fried raised $2.5 million for the race, tapping both personal connections and traditional Democratic sources.
Through her political committee, Fried got $125,000 from the Everglades Trust, $100,000 from financier and Clinton fundraiser Donald Sussman and $75,000 from gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety. She also received $60,000 from Bergmann, $50,000 from the Cannabis company Jushi, $47,000 from San Felasco and $27,500 from Meisel. And she received a $100,000 check from an unidentified Democratic fundraiser in Colorado, a state that has legalized recreational marijuana.
It was just enough. Fried won her race by 6,753 votes.
There’s no question that luck was an enormous factor. She was running against a white male Republican, former state Rep. Matt Caldwell, in a year when female candidates across the country performed well. There were no thirdparty candidates to siphon any protest votes, and she got a huge jolt of free publicity in a race that typically gets little coverage when Wells Fargo canceled her campaign account because of her support for marijuana.
Fried also made the most of each opportunity. When the outgoing agriculture commissioner — and Republican gubernatorial candidate — Adam Putnam was hit by scandal with the revelation that his office had failed to perform full background checks for some concealed weapon permit holders, Fried inserted herself into the debate. She picked a policy fight with the NRA’s well-known Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, generating more media coverage for her race.
“She was in the right place at the right time and, quite frankly, you don’t succeed in politics without taking measured risks,” says Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican lobbyist and former state senator from Fort Lauderdale who is friends with Fried. “But everything about her campaign was smart. Nobody knows what the ag commissioner does. She made it relevant: She talked about weed, she talked about water and she talked about weapons.”
Not surprisingly, Fried immediately moved to make marijuana a priority of her administration. Within days of taking office, she created a new position — director of cannabis, to be headed by former Nashville consultant and banker Holly Bell — and said she would use her department’s role in food safety to begin regulating cannabis-infused edibles. She says her office will support efforts to grow hemp as a commercial crop in Florida.
Fried herself has a prescription for medical marijuana, according to a spokesperson: “Commissioner Fried is a medical marijuana card-holder. She uses this medicine to treat a sleep disorder after finding the medicine to be a safer and more effective alternative to traditional pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter sleep aids, which were ineffective.”
As she takes on a greater role in overseeing the marijuana industry, Fried faces the challenge of avoiding the appearance of any conflicts due to her relationship with Bergmann. After it became clear that Fried was likely to win the re-count in her race, Bergmann stepped down as CEO of Surterra, though he still has an ownership stake in the company. “I have no allegiances to any company,” Fried says. “My allegiances are to the state of Florida and to the patients.”
Fried says she will also focus on programs and policies to eliminate food deserts — neighborhoods, typically poor, without grocery stores, farmers markets or other sources of fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods — and improve food security.
In comments that have made some agribusinesses nervous, Fried says she plans to work with the Department of Environmental Protection and the ag community to adopt the state’s best management practices program for fertilizer and water-quality control on farms.
She continues to make overtures to the industry, however. In addition to opening the South Florida Fair, Fried’s first two weeks in office included a speech to the Watermelon Association’s general assembly in St. Petersburg and a tour of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association’s tropical plant industry expo in Fort Lauderdale. She has pledged support for initiatives such as the Fresh From Florida marketing program. And she chose to retain most of her department’s division directors, which relieved industry officials.
Some farmers have found smaller things in common with Fried, too — she listens to country music and loves Gator football.
“Whenever she has met with us, she has made a point to acknowledge right upfront that she does not come from agriculture, does not have an agriculture background” says Ben Bolusky, CEO of the nursery association. “But she’s very earnest and genuine in reaching out to us to help inform her on the issues.”
Another industry lobbyist says farmers’ perception of Fried has softened somewhat, albeit merely “from skepticism to maybe apprehension.”
The person who might have the most reason to be wary of Fried is DeSantis. Fried has already shown she’s able and willing to put the new governor on the defensive.
In mid-December, on the day her opponent in the agriculture commissioner race conceded defeat, Fried announced that, at her first Cabinet meeting in January, she would force a vote to pardon the Groveland Four, four young black men falsely accused of raping a girl in 1949. Former Gov. Rick Scott and the previous Cabinet — current Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, plus former Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, all Republicans — had refused to vote on the issue. DeSantis hadn’t yet said whether he would act; nor had incoming Attorney General Ashley Moody, also a Republican.
Within days, DeSantis announced he supported a pardon, too. Three weeks later, the pardon passed unanimously.
Fried says she’s not thinking about running for governor. At least right now. “I’m focused on being commissioner of agriculture. There’s so much I can do here to really better our state,” she says.
“If I do my job well, the path that will be in front of me in four years will be laid out. I don’t have that answer. But I’m devoted to doing my job.”
Not Just Ag
Florida has had an agriculture commissioner for 130 years, beginning with Lucius B. Wombwell. There have been 11 commissioners in all, although two men — Nathan Mayo (1923-60) and Doyle Conner (1961- 91) — occupied the office for more than half the time it has existed. Nikki Fried is the second woman to hold the post; Terry Lee Rhodes held it for less than four months after being appointed on an interim basis by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The commissioner’s scope of authority has changed significantly over the years. Today, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has more than a dozen major divisions and offices. Among its many duties:
- Test and inspect pesticides and fertilizers
- Develop and implement water quality and water conservation best management practices
- Ensure animal welfare
- Develop and oversee aquaculture farms
- Regulate auto mechanics, charitable organizations, pawn shops, health studios, travel agents, intrastate movers, professional mappers and surveyors, sweepstakes and game promotions, telemarketers
- Protect consumers from unfair or unsafe practices involving gasoline, brake fluid, antifreeze, liquefied petroleum gas, amusement rides and weight and measurement devices
- Manage energy efficiency and renewable energy programs
- Manage wildfires through the Florida Forestry Service
- Permit and inspect restaurants and food products
- Administer child nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program
- Certify shipments of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts, inspect tomato packinghouses and farms, license fruit dealers and processing plants
- Issue concealed weapon permits
- Regulate private investigative, security and recovery-services industries
- Market Florida agricultural products through Fresh From Florida
- Detect, intercept and control invasive animal plant pests