It’s been a long week for the Democrats running for Agriculture Commissioner.
For two months, J.R. Gaillot and Ryan Morales were aligned together against the endorsement- and money-leader in the race for the Democratic Agriculture Commissioner nomination. Now with two weeks till Election Day and a scandal that has turned the Democratic establishment against that front-runner, the temporary alliance between Gaillot and Morales has disintegrated as each aims to secure the nomination.
The Democratic campaign for Agriculture Commissioner has not garnered much scrutiny, with Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson considered a shoo-in for the General Election in November. But after leading Democrats rescinded their endorsements of Naomi Blemur following revelations about her social media history and past beliefs — which some Democrats are calling “anti-choice” and “homophobic” — it’s unclear who between Gaillot and Morales would run opposite Simpson.
Early indications show support coalescing around Morales, a cannabis activist who lost the 2020 Democratic Primary for Florida House District 32 by 3 points. Morales, who has also been involved in cybersecurity, keeps an active, personal and fiery social media account, and his campaign website includes a way to donate with cryptocurrency. For more than a year, he was the only Democratic candidate in the Agriculture Commissioner race.
Gaillot, who filed his candidacy in June, is a New York-born Haitian American who has worked as a legislative director and adviser for multiple national and international companies. He ran for Congress in 2012, losing to would-be U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho by 32 percentage points in the 3rd Congressional District. Gaillot ran for the Florida House in 2016, taking only 4% of the vote in the Democratic Primary for House District 13.
When Blemur emerged as the South Florida Democratic establishment’s choice for Agriculture Commissioner, Gaillot and Morales worked in tandem to oppose her. They issued a joint statement calling for her to drop out following an article from West Orlando News last week that accused Blemur of fraudulently falsifying financial documents.
Former candidate Adam Christensen, whose campaign lasted about 16 hours before learning he was too young to run for office, has also remained involved as Gaillot’s campaign manager and was the one who exposed Blemur’s social media history.
With Blemur’s chances for the Democratic nomination dwindling, Gaillot has shifted his focus to Morales. Gaillot’s campaign website lists 31 policy goals for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), from limiting phosphogypsum stacks to implementing a rent hike cap.
“My opponent in the Agriculture race wants you to vote for him but won’t tell you why until after the race is over. He’s been running for a year and a half and hasn’t produced a single policy page. I’ve been running for 2 months and have 31. Actions speak louder than words,” Gaillot tweeted Monday.
Gaillot’s website lists the state statute and state codes he says give the Agriculture Commissioner the authority to implement those proposals. But Morales says Gaillot is misinformed on the role of FDACS, adding that he has discussed the extent of its authority with the department.
“We don’t legislate. It’s moot,” Morales told Florida Politics on Tuesday. “He has no clue what the position entails and what it does.”
In his own conversation with Florida Politics on Tuesday, Gaillot said he views Morales as his greatest competition in the race.
“You’ve got to have policy, you’ve got to have a plan, and the man has no plan,” Gaillot said.
Meanwhile, Morales says his plan is to keep hammering on his endorsements.
Following the establishment exodus from Blemur’s camp, Morales has received the majority of endorsements. Miami-Dade Democratic State Sen. Jason Pizzo endorsed him early Monday, and Orlando Democratic State Sen. Victor Torres and the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus are also endorsing him.
Meanwhile, Broward County Commissioner and former Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich endorsed Gaillot, as did Florida for Change and the Blue Wave Coalition of Miami Dade.
For her part, Blemur has disputed the characterization of her beliefs, calling them lies. She also released a video of her stating her support for abortion rights during a campaign event.
Miami state Sen. Annette Taddeo — a congressional candidate, a former gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s running mate in 2014 — was perhaps the most prominent Democrat to endorse Blemur. She pulled that endorsement on Sunday, citing Blemur’s response to her critics.
“As Democrats we need to be willing to allow people to evolve over time and I myself am a big believer in counseling over canceling. But because (Blemur) chose to call them lies instead of taking accountability I am retracting my endorsement and will be staying neutral in that Primary moving forward,” Taddeo said in a statement to Florida Politics.
Taddeo and others have been hesitant to choose sides in the Primary and have been critical of all candidates.
“This year, in particular, I felt that the candidate recruitment for this office was weak and our options were limited,” Taddeo said.
The Miami Herald editorial board on Monday endorsed Morales but called the Democratic field “thin” and “disappointing,” suggesting the party was conceding the race to the GOP.
Despite Republicans’ money lead with their leading candidate, Simpson, Christensen disputes the race is lost, or thin. The current Agriculture Commissioner, Nikki Fried, won her race by less than one-tenth of a percentage point in 2018, becoming the first Democrat elected in a statewide race since then-President Barack Obama and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson were re-elected in 2012.
“It’s not that the field is thin, it’s that they don’t know the candidates. And if they don’t know the candidates, they don’t vet the candidates,” Christensen said of state Democratic leadership.
Morales says the money and state-level support will come when a nominee is chosen on Aug. 23. Until then, Morales said he will focus his campaign on what makes him shine. In his eight years as a Senator, Simpson has been beholden to the sugar and casino industry, he argued.
“I don’t mind being David in the David and Goliath, because it’s going to be just me and him,” Morales said. “People are going to see just how bad of a person he’s been as a Senator.”