Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has carried the party’s torch as the state’s top Democrat since she was elected in late 2018 and, for the most part, she has done it well.
She has hit all the right notes to set Democrats up in the midterms to both defend their seats against an increasingly Trumpy Republican Party and go on the offensive in a state where Dems have struggled for years.
And she has done so while also showing her own political ambitions, setting herself up as a fire-starter critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis and highlighting every stumble he has made since day one, even if it wasn’t really a stumble.
I was the first person to write about her in 2018 because I knew how smart and capable she is, and I still believe she has a bright future.
With Fried, there is clearly a blind spot. It may not be an Andrew Gillum level blindspot, but it’s there and it worries me. It should worry Democrats, too.
I warned Democrats in late 2017 that something just wasn’t quite right about Gillum. The then-Mayor of Tallahassee was proving to be more than the fringe progressive who would never hold a flame to the likes of Gwen Graham. So much so that he eventually bested her in the Democratic Primary.
While there’s another conversation to be had about the fray within the Democratic Party between its progressive, Bernie Sanders wing, and its more moderate, play-it-safe Hillary Clinton/Joe Biden arm, and what Gillum’s primary victory meant for that division, my gut feeling was right.
And even though some Democrats will cringe to hear this, I agree with Gov. Ron DeSantis that had Gillum been elected, Florida would be a disaster in this pandemic.
It’s not that I think Fried has a deeply held secret like Gillum. But what is at issue might be worse.
Her issues are hiding in plain sight.
I struggled with this internally, and even went to my insightful team of reporters for their thoughts. Ultimately, the consensus was that the inevitable attacks on Fried based on her relationship with fiancee Jake Bergmann are rooted in misogyny and hypocrisy, but that they would nevertheless bog her down in a campaign for Governor.
Start first with the incident last June in Fort Lauderdale, in which Bergmann was escorted from an upscale hotel and trespassed from the property after an argument that, some say, was abusive toward Fried.
A victim should never be blamed for being a victim. Let’s get that out of the way. But Fried’s response could, and probably should, haunt her.
Instead of standing up for victims of domestic violence, Fried’s comment on the situation did the opposite. It basically said no one should even be a victim if only they’re just strong enough.
That’s not how domestic violence works.
“I’m a 42-year-old, independently strong female and would never allow somebody to put their hands on me and to abuse me,” Fried said in an interview.
The issue came to light largely because one of Fried’s trusted inner circle, Eric Johnson, came forward with concerns that she was in a toxic, if not abusive, relationship. In fact, more than a dozen people close to Fried came to the same conclusion. She ultimately dismissed three people in Fried world for raising such concerns.
Now, with Florida Politics asking questions about the divorce proceedings between Bergmann and his wife, including inquiries about what Bergmann’s wife states is a $125,000 engagement ring given to Fried, we received harsh resistance from Bergmann’s legal team.
“It is unfortunate for my family, and for me, that outlets like Florida Politics choose to publicize any information pertaining to a divorce and family proceeding for some perceived political scoop,” Bergmann said in a statement through his lawyers. “To protect my family’s privacy, I will not discuss these issues publicly, except to state unequivocally that I have at all times provided for them and I will continue do so.”
(Editor’s note: I will not jeopardize the livelihoods of those who write for Florida Politics by publishing what I think are noteworthy aspects of the Bergmann divorce proceedings even though I believe they shed light on an individual who would have enormous influence on Fried were she to run for and become Governor. I know another media outlet with deeper pockets than me is pursuing a story that will bring all of this to light. I’ll leave it to their lawyers to deal with Bergmann’s.)
Florida Politics isn’t the only media asking appropriate questions about Fried. The Capitolist noted how Bergmann’s transfer of the couple’s $700,000 home into Fried’s name may have violated Florida’s gift ban in its ethics law, which prohibits gifts greater than $100. It’s especially troubling because Bergmann owned a large stake in Surterra Wellness, one of the state’s largest medical marijuana companies, and donated tens of thousands of dollars to Fried’s 2018 campaign via her political action committee.
It’s starting to look like Bergmann is this political cycle’s Carole Crist — that is, the romantic partner who could end up destroying a winning brand.
But Fried’s relationship with Bergmann isn’t the only troubling association. She also has a documented connection to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz. The two worked together when Gaetz was a state Representative and Fried was a lobbyist working on pro-pot issues, on which Gaetz was an ally.
But when reports came out, which are more damning by the minute, that Gaetz may have had a sexual relationship with a 17 year old and is under investigation for sex trafficking, Fried didn’t rebuff her friend. Instead she offered this reprehensible comment that will no doubt work against her.
“I certainly hope they (the allegations) are not true on behalf of the potential victims of this case, and certainly hope the FBI and DOJ either come to a decision or make further findings, or it is time for people of our country and our state to move on and get on with the business of governing,” she said.
If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same argument congressional Republicans used, and are using, to move past the shameful acts of former President Donald Trump that resulted in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Charlie Crist might not want to go negative in a hypothetical primary against Fried (which is likely to move beyond hypothetical soon), but if he does, well, there it is.
Then, on the same morning Fried dropped a campaign video basically announcing she would announce her bid for Governor, she had dinner with Chris Dorworth, a central figure in the Gaetz scandal, according to Gary Fineout in his POLITICO Playbook email.
So, let’s recap with a Reddit-esque TL;DR.
Fried started out with a bang. But she got wrapped up in claims that she was in an abusive relationship and responded with what amounts to victim-blaming other victims. She has potentially accepted gifts from her fiancé in excess, by far, of allowable limits (a $700,000 home and, allegedly, a $125,000 engagement ring). She’s hobnobbing with a lobbyist adjacent to a federal investigation and, when asked, did not disavow the highest profile player in that investigation.
Ouch, ouch and triple ouch.
It’s not like I have too terribly much at stake in this fight. I like Fried. And it’s no secret my affinity for Crist. I also have deep admiration for U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who may also join the Governor’s race. And if you can find someone who voted for Biden and still thinks as highly of DeSantis as me, please let me know.
But Fried’s eventual gubernatorial bid has all the makings of a train wreck waiting to happen.
She shocked the state in 2018 when she defeated Matt Caldwell, and perhaps she is still emboldened by that narrow upset. And yes, she is a proven fighter who will bring the intelligence and energy needed to take on DeSantis and his machine.
As a politician for just three years, perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on her.
These missteps, whether her fault or not, carry consequences. For Fried, those consequences are fodder for never-ending attacks. Just wait for it.