Democratic Cabinet candidates Jeremy Ring and Nikki Fried held a town hall on the Caloosahatchee River and committed, if elected, to bring stakeholders together to combat the dual plagues of blue-green algae and red tide.
At a joint North Fort Myers campaign stop, Ring, a candidate for Chief Financial Officer, stressed the need for all parties involved with pollution problems around Lake Okeechobee to rally around a unified solution.
“I don’t think you have to win by demonizing anybody,” Ring said.
Both Ring and Fried, the Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner, said the executive branch could take immediate steps to prevent further harmful algal blooms.
“It’s time for leadership,” Fried said. “We just need knowledge on what has been done and what needs to be done.”
The candidates met with Southwest Florida scientists and environmentalists, including some seeking seats in the Florida Legislature, at the Three Fisherman Seafood Restaurant overlooking the algae-plagued Caloosahatchee in North Fort Myers. It’s the same venue where Sen. Bill Nelson met with some of the same leaders in July.
The gathered experts placed the bulk of the blame for the disaster not on any industry as much as on Gov. Rick Scott’s focus on deregulation and industry appeasement during the past eight years.
“We’ve removed environmental protections we’re supposed to have according to the Environmental Protection Agency. We removed water monitoring and then said we didn’t know what was happening,” said Annisa Karim, a wildlife ecologist and Democrat running in Senate District 28.
But in addition to hammering on Republican policies regarding environmental protection, the experts also discussed the practical challenges.
“One thing I’ve learned from 10 years in the Florida Senate, when you bring the Legislature a finished product you don’t have a problem,” Ring said. “They will pass that bill. When you bring them gridlock, you’re not going to get legislation passed.”
Former Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki said everyone should acknowledge the role they have to play and noted efforts in the nearby city to contain water runoff.
John Capece, chairman of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida’s Southwest Chapter, said much of the pollution into Lake Okeechobee, frequently credited with blue-green algal blooms, comes as much from land formerly used for cattle farming as it does from other blamed sources.
But John Scott, a Sierra Club activist and co-leader of the Clean Water Initiative, said the sugar industry remained the “biggest polluter of the political system,” standing in the way of land acquisition for a new reservoir and of other regulations that could make discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers less toxic.
Jennifer Boddicker, the Democratic candidate for state House in District 80, said while no party should be demonized, it remained critical to have scientists leading discussions, not lobbyists. “You have to have scientific guidelines or they [industry lobbyists] will run the meeting,” she said.
Fried and Ring both agreed it was important to bring stakeholders together, but not lobbyists.
Of course, Fried’s policy background includes years of lobbying work. “But that’s exactly why I decided to run for office this year,” Fried said.
“I saw first-hand on the issues I was fighting for—public education, foster care of children and obviously medical marijuana—and saw how at the last minute when trying to get good police, big corporations and big lobbyists would come in and destroy whatever good things are happening.”
How can further failure be avoided in the future? Ring says the next step for candidates is obvious.
“I’ve got to get elected. And Nikki’s got to get elected,” he said. “Once we get elected we can do everything we spoke about today.”