Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was the lone candidate for Governor to participate in a sparsely attended Saturday “Governor’s Forum” at the Seminole Theater in Homestead. That wasn’t the original plan, according to those behind the event and materials advertising it.
The group organizing the event was the JMV Coalition of South Dade Residents. The organization’s initialism comes from the first names of its figureheads, former South Bay Community Council member Johnny Farias and political operatives Manuel Ernesto Gutierrez and Venesumia Fernandez Lovely. For months, they promoted the forum as featuring Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.
Democratic former State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who is running for Attorney General, also was billed as a speaker. She took the stage to speak with Dwight Bullard, a former state Senator and current senior political adviser to Florida Rising, about 15 minutes after Bullard concluded his talk with Fried.
About 60 people attended the forum in person. Gutierrez said more than 1,800 people watched live. He added that JMV plans to rebroadcast the event “continuously to residents that did not have the opportunity to see it live” following post-production work.
Crist had agreed in December to participate in the forum, emails JMV shared with Florida Politics show.
Between then and Saturday, several details about the event changed. Accounts differ as to what changed, why and how.
In its original form, the forum was to be hosted by NBC 6 South Florida co-anchor Jawan Strader. After Strader canceled for what Farias said were family reasons, the group reached out to CBS 4 Miami investigative reporter Jim DeFede.
DeFede at first agreed to host the event, Farias said, but he soon pulled out because “he wasn’t comfortable with things that were happening.”
Farias said DeFede did not elaborate as to what caused him discomfort.
Strader and DeFede did not respond to comment requests by press time.
Considering the event’s hosts and location, the absence of Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who alongside Crist and Fried is considered a Democratic front-runner in the Governor’s race, was conspicuous and did not go unnoticed.
¿Dónde está @Annette_Taddeo? "Florida Democratic Governor's Forum" in Miami-Dade excludes the only Latina candidate (who's also a state senator in Miami)? Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. #BecauseMiami @johnnygfarias @lovelyvenusmia @MiamiDadeDems pic.twitter.com/XTrRtv1AkZ
— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) March 18, 2022
Gutierrez and Lovely previously worked as Taddeo’s campaign manager and Chief of Staff, respectively. However, it was Farias, a volunteer during Taddeo’s Senate campaign, who said he invited her to the forum.
Farias, who this year is running for House District 118, said he spoke with Taddeo and Progress for Florida founder Millie Raphael during the December Leadership Blue Gala in Orlando about having her participate.
Raphael said no such conversation happened then “or at any other time” — an assertion Taddeo’s campaign manager, Nick Merlino, corroborated.
“And further, our campaign received no formal invitation for a forum as would be expected for a gubernatorial race,” Raphael said.
Farias confirmed his group did not send Taddeo’s campaign a written invitation.
“I took our relationship as friendlier,” he said. “I spoke to her that day, but I never sent her an email. When she never got back to me, I figured she was not interested.”
He added, “It’s a free platform. Tickets were free. If you want to come, you’d come.”
On some of the content promoting the event, JMV said Crist and Fried were the “two candidates that we have chosen to feature.”
As the date of the forum neared, disagreements arose between the Crist campaign and JMV. Some of the discord centered on the event’s format. An email on April 20, the Wednesday before the event, shows senior Crist adviser Lourdes Diaz acknowledging the removal of a rebuttal period during the planned discussion between Crist and Fried.
While rebuttals are typical of a debate, the event was not advertised as a debate.
“Looking forward to a very successful event,” Diaz wrote. “See you on Saturday.”
Then, one day before the event, Crist’s political director, Philip Jerez, informed JMV that Crist wasn’t going to show.
“Thank you for putting this event together,” he wrote. “Regrettably, the Congressman will not be participating in the event.”
Instead, Crist and Taddeo both attended the Florida Puerto Rican Parade and Festival in Orlando.
No better way to celebrate our rich Boricua community than at the Florida Puerto Rican Parade and Festival — WEPA!
— Charlie Crist (@CharlieCrist) April 24, 2022
It was a great day in Orlando spent celebrating the Boricua community among great company 🇵🇷🎉 pic.twitter.com/jMxXbT4u6M
— Annette Taddeo (She/Her/Ella) (@Annette_Taddeo) April 23, 2022
The Crist campaign did not provide a reason for canceling, said Farias, who suspected Crist got “cold feet because of the rebuttal thing.”
Crist’s campaign declined to elaborate when contacted by Florida Politics. His spokesperson, Samantha Rodriguez, said Crist “has been having robust conversations across the state with regular folks who are tired of Gov. DeSantis’ divisive politics, and want to build a Florida that works for everyone.”
Fried said she was disappointed Crist backed out.
“This is an opportunity for the people of this community and for those watching online to see the differences between the two of us, which are huge, on our policy backgrounds, who we are as people and on showing up in the community,” she said. “I showed up today. I wanted people to hear my perspective on issues, and unfortunately, they didn’t hear from Charlie today. That says a lot about who he is and his unwillingness to share a stage and talk about issues that are concerning to people in our state.”
On Sunday, Crist, Fried and Taddeo participated in a panel discussion in Manatee County. The day before, Rodriguez said Crist looked to the event, noting it included “all three candidates.”
Zac Anderson of the Herald Tribune described the discussion as a “pseudo debate” that concluded “without any fireworks between the candidates.”
3 Democrats running for governor participating in their first pseudo debate tonight at Manatee County Democratic Party dinner In Lakewood Ranch. First time all 3 on stage together answering moderator questions. pic.twitter.com/tYJh7bJ6fc
— Zac Anderson (@zacjanderson) April 25, 2022