In the sole debate of their party’s gubernatorial Primary, Florida’s two leading Democratic candidates exchanged barbs as they challenged each other over who is best fit to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried compared their records on abortion, affordable housing, gun violence, the environment, LGBTQ issues and more Thursday in a contentious pre-recorded debate.
Florida’s 15-week abortion ban loomed over the debate. Minutes before the debate aired, but hours after it was recorded Thursday morning, a Florida appellate court ruled it would not fast track a case to overturn the ban.
Three of the seven Justices on the Florida Supreme Court were appointed by Crist during his term as Governor from 2007 to 2011, when he was elected as a Republican. Those Justices make up the conservative command over the state Supreme Court that could overturn the state right to abortion.
While both candidates argue they will fight for abortion rights as Governor, Crist campaigned as a “pro-life” candidate during his years as a Republican. Fried has used those statements and Crist’s recent comments that he is personally anti-abortion to hit him on the issue, calling him a Republican.
Fried began the debate mistakenly saying she has been “pro-life her whole entire life,” intending to say she is pro-abortion rights. In his response, Crist lent a hand to Fried, correcting her flub.
However, Fried responded that she meant to say Crist was and still is “pro-life.” She linked the possibility that the state right to abortions could be overturned to Crist’s appointees.
“When women die here in the state of Florida, that is on you, and you will have to live with that every single day,” she said.
Crist accused Fried of trying to muddy the campaign by saying he is “pro-life.” He said every action he has taken on abortion, even as a Republican, has been in favor of abortion rights, like when he vetoed a bill that would have required woman to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion. He cited endorsements from former Planned Parenthood officials and his perfect congressional score from Planned Parenthood.
“You’re losing this campaign,” Crist told Fried. “It’s time for desperation, and now it’s on full display all over the state of Florida.”
In addition to calling Crist a Republican, she called him “a Brett Kavanaugh,” referring to one of President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court appointees.
Crist, who was first elected to Congress in 2016, is the presumed front-runner in the race. He was previously elected to one term as Governor as a Republican in 2006. However, he left the party in 2010 ahead of an unsuccessful independent bid for the U.S. Senate and registered as a Democrat in 2012. He was also elected Florida’s Attorney General in 2002 as a Republican.
Fried was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 2018 and is the only Florida Democrat to win a statewide race since then-President Barack Obama and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson were re-elected in 2012. She won her race by less than 7,000 votes, less than one-tenth of a percentage point.
Crist, who was also the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2014, has far outraised Fried, and polls have consistently shown him leading the Primary. When Crist mentioned the poll numbers, Fried interrupted Crist.
“The only polls that matter are the ones on Election Day,” Fried interjected.
Crist pledged that he would endorse Fried if she won the Democratic Primary. Fried did not have an immediate opportunity to respond to Crist’s pledge but did not circle back to make the same pledge.
Florida’s property insurance market has been in crisis in recent years, with more companies declaring bankruptcy. One ratings agency is expected to downgrade 17 Florida property insurers by Tuesday in another blow to the insurance market.
The Republican-led Legislature held a Special Session in May to address the insurance market. Both Republicans and Democrats have suggested addressing frivolous lawsuits, which are straining the fragile marketplace.
To combat Florida’s rising cost of living, Fried said she would declare a housing emergency to allow law enforcement to target “predatory landlords.” Crist argued to fully fund the state’s affordable housing trust fund, which has not been funded at originally intended levels since the 2008 recession, when Crist was Governor.
That decision helped save the jobs of teachers and law enforcement, Crist said. But Fried did not give him a pass on that or the increased membership to the state-owned, last-resort property insurance provider under Crist’s term. She also accused him of siding with the Trial Bar over insurance companies or Floridians.
“By manipulating the market, he made sure that we have a crisis today. The policies that he put into place when he was Governor is why we have an insurance problem here today,” Fried said.
On gun violence, Fried said she opposes home-assembled guns and supports removing assault weapons from Florida’s streets. Crist also stated his support for an assault weapons ban.
Moderators also asked the candidates about Florida’s law limiting classroom lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity, a law commonly called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. Both Crist and Fried stated their opposition to the law, with Crist saying he intends to overturn it.
Crist also called DeSantis the worst Governor in modern Florida history and accused him of fundraising with millionaires and billionaires around the country to prepare for a presidential run.
“What he’s doing is giving up everything that Floridians care about in order to pursue the White House because he’s thinking about it all day, every day. And that’s why he’s going after these red meat, unbelievable issues to punish gay people in Florida, to punish African American citizens in our state, to punish women and their right to choose,” Crist said. “I want to reverse all of that.”