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Nikki Fried slammed Rick Scott on AIDS funding neglect.

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Joe Henderson: Nikki Fried can lead the change in Florida gun culture

Events in El Paso and Dayton underscored Fried’s vow to stand up to the NRA in Florida

This column was going to be a homage of sorts to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, but it changed instead into a plea. Circumstances over the weekend forced that.

The murder and maiming of innocents in El Paso and Dayton forced that, but it underscored a basic fact about Fried.

She may be the right person at the right time to make a difference in the obsession Florida lawmakers have to expand what I laughingly call gun rights. She has the pulpit and the microphone to do just that.

During her successful campaign last year for Agriculture Commissioner, she vowed, “I have a message for the NRA—your control over concealed weapons permits is finished. As commissioner, I won’t be beholden to you, but to the people of Florida. I will do my job and stand up for what’s right.”

It didn’t take long to show she is the kind of leader state Democrats have longed for but rarely found. She is fresh, feisty, and fearless. Fried means exactly what she says.

That has put Fried on a collision course with Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody. She will appeal a recent court ruling that a controversial 2011 Florida law is unconstitutional.

The bill allowed the state to fine or even remove local officials who vote for local gun safety laws.  The NRA lapdogs masquerading as Republican lawmakers don’t want anything to get in the way of gun expansion. That handcuffs big-city mayors like Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, who joined in the lawsuit that Moody wants to defeat.

The New Yorker reported that emails from NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer confirm the organization was “deeply involved in advocating” for the legislation. Fried vowed to end that kind of cozy relationship.

Fried first asked the state to drop the appeal. There was no chance that would happen, so Fried then asked that her name and office be removed from the appeal. Fried’s gambit about the appeal is largely symbolic. The appeal will go forward, with or without her name. Symbolic as it may be, though, it still is important – maybe now more than ever.

Fried is the highest-profile face and voice of opposition to gun insanity in Florida. She can be a force for change.

Fried’s office oversees concealed weapons permit applications. Last year, the office under then-Commissioner Adam Putnam failed to properly review tens of thousands of applications. The applications passed without the mandatory background check, and Putnam blamed a computer problem.

Democrats haven’t had the chance to show much because of Republican dominance in Tallahassee. The NRA gets nearly everything it wants, and tragedies like the Pulse nightclub and Parkland massacres made no difference.

There even was an NRA-backed push after Fried was elected to place permitting under state Republican CFO Jimmy Patronis.

They might try again, though, because the NRA never stops. When it loses something it wants in this state, that just means it hasn’t won yet. But Fried has proven she is no NRA puppet, and that is setting off alarm bells.  The NRA and Tallahassee haven’t seen a Democrat come along with those chops in a long time, and I think it scares them.

Whether Fried’s growing stature can lift more Democrats into positions of influence in state government is a still-unfolding story. What do we value more? Gun rights or the right to live without the fear of being shot?

Fried can force the state to have that honest conversation.

El Paso and Dayton just experienced what Parkland and Orlando already know. Thoughts and prayers are a dodge, not a policy. Maybe Fried can help her colleagues to understand the difference.

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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