Tampa Bay Times: Meet Nicole “Nikki” Fried, the marijuana lobbyist and Fort Lauderdale attorney running for agriculture commissioner
She doesn’t wear a cowboy hat or a belt buckle. She was born and raised in suburban South Florida, not rural Polk County. Her family isn’t tied to the agriculture industry.
Nicole “Nikki” Fried knows she’s not what people see when they imagine a candidate for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
But that, she says, is her key to winning the seat.
“I see things through a new lens where my opponent does not,” she said.
The 40-year-old marijuana lobbyist and Fort Lauderdale-based attorney prides herself on being a visible face in the state’s growing medical cannabis industry as well as representing a nontraditional choice for the role.
She says being a native Floridian gives her a deeper understanding of the economic role agriculture plays in the state despite never having worked in the business.
“You don’t have to come from the industry to fight for the industry,” she said. “You don’t have to be a farmer to be a commissioner.”
Fried grew up in Miami, where she graduated from Miami Palmetto High School.
She went on to the University of Florida, where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in political campaigning and a law degree.
Fried is a member of the university’s Hall of Fame as well as a member of the esteemed Blue Key Society. It was at UF where she grew to know the likes of current agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and attorney general candidate Ashley Moody.
While at UF, Fried served in the student senate and eventually was elected student body president. While serving in the student government, she met one of her oldest friends — Brad Jones. Jones, a registered Republican from Sarasota, says Fried is uniquely able to “cut through the divide” between people with different political beliefs.
“Right now, there is so much emotion in our political system,” Jones, 41, said. “Nikki is balanced and moderate. It’s an important position to have.”
He said Fried hasn’t changed much since college.
“She’s always been this way,” said Jones, now a healthcare executive in Sarasota.. “She always had a strong desire to serve.”
Upon graduating from the Fredric G. Levin College of Law in 2003, Fried started practicing alongside Moody in Jacksonville, where she focused on commercial litigation.
“I quickly realized that it was not my cup of tea,” she said. “I am more of a ‘people person.’ ”
She departed from “corporate life,” she said, and went on to work in the public defender’s office in Alachua County. After two years, she became the division’s felony chief.
Stacy Scott, the public defender for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, worked with Fried in the agency when they were both assistant public defenders. Scott and Fried also spent time together as lobbyists in Tallahassee.
Scott said she “always assumed she would go into some sort of public service.”
“I viewed her as very successful and as a kind of person who was continuing on an upward career path,” she said.
Fried eventually moved back to South Florida to be closer to family, where she continued to practice law. Her sister, who lives in Wellington, says the two women have been close since they were little girls.
“I always wanted to walk in my sister’s shoes,” said Jennifer Shaffren, who is four years Fried’s junior. “She has always had a passion to make change for the better.”
Shaffren says the campaign brings her “deja vu” to the sisters’ shared UF days, where Shaffren took an active role in helping Fried campaign for student body president.
Now, Shaffren drives an Infiniti decorated with Nikki’s campaign signs and stickers. She makes phone calls to voters and serves as the “Palm Beach hub” for people who want campaign signs or literature. She even brings her 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter along to learn about the voting process.
“My kids love Nikki to death,” she said. “I am doing everything I can to support her.”
Eight years after Fried moved to South Florida, she started Igniting Florida: a one-woman lobbying shop named after her student government party at UF.
“I said, it’s time for me to not be on the sidelines,” she said. “I missed being able to change things from a different perspective.”
During her time lobbying in Tallahassee, she represented Florida’s Children First’s lobbying team, for which she helped pass a bill that provided $4.5 million in legal aid to disabled dependent children in the state.
President of Florida’s Children’s First, attorney Howard Talenfield, said he got to know Fried well when she worked for the firm and later lobbied for the nonprofit.
“She has that kind of charisma, where people believe what she says,” Talenfield said.
He said he hopes Fried could bring a voice for children into the cabinet-level role.
“It is critical for us to have a child advocate there to impact government issues,” he said. “Children do not have a voice in the state of Florida, and it’s about time they did. Nikki will be a great voice.”
On to medical marijuana
In 2015, she starting lobbying for medical marijuana when a client hired her to help get a license.
After witnessing how cannabis oil helped children who have seizures and weaned people off opiates, she learned the extent to which medical marijuana can impact patients’ lives. She also saw how the licensing structure made it difficult for patients and distributors to navigate the system.
“We have a chance to make them feel better,” she said. “It was time for me to kind of put myself out there and try to change policy in the way our government looks.”
Fried and her Republican opponent, Fort Myers Rep. Matt Caldwell, have both expressed interest in moving medical marijuana regulation under the Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as opposed to the Department of Health.
Fried’s passion for marijuana reform extends into the hemp industry as well. Farmers should be able to grow industrial hemp as an alternative crop, she says, in order to create nutrients and utilize land plagued by citrus greening. She says hemp crops could keep a seasonal workforce employed for longer.
“There’s just no support from the commissioner’s office, and a Republican-led legislature doesn’t understand it,” she said.
Fried has also advocated for legalizing smokable medical marijuana, which she says is the “will of the people” in a video she posted to Twitter Sept. 13.
In the video, Fried calls out Gov. Rick Scott for fighting the appeal for smokable marijuana and implores Ron DeSantis and Matt Caldwell to respond.
Caldwell, who helped draft marijuana legislation in 2016, said in an interview that he is skeptical of smokable marijuana for medicinal use.
“Straight-up smoking a plant is not how we deliver medicine in any other scenario,” he said. “It’s because of dosing. [Oils and pills] have been tested and hves efficacy. You don’t have those guarantees if you are smoking the raw plant.”
A gender breakthrough
Fried is the first woman to snag a nomination for the seat, which is something she said is “not an easy feat.” In 2001, Terry Lee Rhodes was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush as an interim commissioner.
Fried easily beat Democratic rivals Jeffrey Duane Porter and Roy David Walker in the primary with 58 percent of the vote. Walker, a South Florida environmental activist got 25 percent and Porter, the mayor of Homestead, got 15.
Despite the successful primary, Ben Pollara, a consultant on her campaign, said Fried has not had it easy. She’s faced myriad challenges on the campaign so far.
“It’s historically been an office not just held by white men but white Republican men,” he said. “It’s an old boys club, and it’s a bubble.”
In recent months, Fried’s campaign has even had trouble finding a bank for her campaign accounts.
Fried’s stance on marijuana and subsequently, donations from the medical marijuana industry, prompted both Wells Fargo and BB&T to close her campaign accounts in the span of three weeks in August and September.
A review of Fried’s campaign finances shows a $1,000 donation from Savara Hastings, executive director of the Florida-based American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association and $3,000 from Jake Bergman, CEO and founder of Atlanta-based Surterra Holdings LLC, which intends to become a national medical marijuana business.
The pressure for banks in the state to shun medical marijuana business is high because Florida hosts more international customers and sees more potential instances of money laundering than the average state. Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana, joining 30 states nationwide with such legalization. However, cannabis is still illegal on the federal level.
Fried has made banking a high-profile issue, and says that as a member of the Cabinet she plans to lobby the federal government to protect bank accounts that handle money tied to medical marijuana.
If elected in November, Fried will be tasked with appointing the director of the Office of Financial Regulation, which oversees the state’s banking industry.
Congressman Charlie Crist took Fried’s side in the banking fiasco during a conference call last week.
“What has happened to Nikki is an unfortunate reminder of the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, highlighting an urgent need for action,” he said.
Fried said she hopes to work with the new Chief Financial Officer to create a new state bank that would protect accounts with ties to the medical marijuana industry.
“This is an opportunity for the CFO and for the Office of Financial Regulation to say ‘State banks are open for business, come into the state. We will protect you,” she said.
Caldwell said businesses should be using state-chartered banks to get around marijuana-induced banking problems.
In addition to contributions from the marijuana industry, other noteworthy donors to Fried’s campaign include $5,000 from billionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene and $3,000 from Ruth’s List, an organization that recruits and supports female candidates for office. In a tongue-in-cheek nod to the marijuana industry, Fried’s also collected about 50 donations in increments of $4.20. (The number 420 is code for marijuana use in the cannabis culture.)
As of September, her campaign and her political committee, Florida Consumers First, had raised about $453,238. Nearly $148,712 of it was raised in the first month or so of her campaign.
“She’s really gone from zero to 100,” Pollara said. “Now she’s cranking into a general election.”
John Morgan, a well-known Orlando attorney and proponent of medical marijuana, said Fried is a “woman with a vision.” Morgan, who has never publicly endorsed a candidate before, said he decided to go public because of the way she refuses to see marijuana as a “serpent in a box” and wants to take the office in a new direction.
“She’s not stuck in the 1950s as a Polk County cowboy,” Morgan said. “She is somebody who would make the agriculture cabinet position really relevant, instead of just a rubber stamp for sugar and overseeing carnival rides.”
Where does Nikki Fried stand on …
Fried has not taken any money from the sugar industry directly but does not criticize the industry.
“Everybody wants to blame everybody for what’s causing the algae blooms,” she said. “Everybody has a little piece of fault, so I refuse to go after anybody I’d be regulating. Like, why would you want to come and deal with me if I’ve spent the last three months attacking you?”
Fried is one of the state’s most prominent lobbyist for expanding access to medical marijuana. She estimates that between the cannabis and industrial hemp industries, the state could bring in $30 billion to $40 billion in tax revenue for areas like education, affordable housing and other infrastructure. She says that utilizing land in the off season gives the state the opportunity to keep a workforce around yearlong and allow citrus growers to keep land that might otherwise be sold to developers.
“The fact that they have not allowed our farmers to start pursuing those avenues has really hurt the environment, our workforce,” she said in August. “Not allowing growth of cannabis and industrial hemp in the off season is a missed opportunity.”
The National Rifle Association
Fried, who was not endorsed by the NRA nor given an “A” rating, says Caldwell can “hold on to that NRA rating and his guns as tight as he wants.”
“I wouldn’t even have a rating because I haven’t voted on anything,” she said.
North American Free Trade Agreement
Earlier this year, Adam Putnam made a statement underscoring the importance of protecting Florida agriculture from unfair and illegal trade practices amid negotiations. Fried says NAFTA is “good and bad.” She said Mexico’s seasonal produce “dumping” into the U.S. causes Florida to lose out on revenue.
“One component of NAFTA that absolutely needs to be renegotiated is dealing with the seasonal factor.”
Does Rick Scott think Trump’s Mexico trade pact adequately protects Florida farmers?
In September of last year, the Florida Chamber of Commerce submitted a letter to NAFTA asking for the administration to “level the playing field” when it comes to trade with Canada and Mexico. The agency asked to eliminate some barriers to trade and pursue a more “open and fair” access to the market.
“NAFTA has hurt a lot of our farmers,” Fried said.
Concealed weapon permitting
Fried has a concealed weapons permit and owns a gun, and will “not stand in the way” of anyone who wants a permit, she said. However, conducting an audit of the background check process is at the top of her list.
Putnam was slammed earlier this year after it was reported that for more than a year, the department stopped using results from an FBI crime database that ensures that those who apply to carry a gun do not have a disqualifying history in other states. The employee in charge of the program was unable to log into the system, which went unresolved for more than a year.
“On day one, I want to do an audit to figure out exactly where the holes were in the processing and see how we can quickly fix them,” she said. “The buck stops with me.”
Red tide and blue-green algae
Rising nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Okeechobee combined with run-off from the agriculture industry is a contributor to the toxic blue-green algae plaguing the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and moving through the connected waterways. It may be a contributing factor to the red tide on the southwest coast.
Earlier in the month Fried and her team took a trip to Fort Myers, where they spent time riding the waterways and talking to locals about the effect of the toxic green slime.
“Some of these men got physically choked up when they were explaining what was happening,” she said. “The smell just hits you.”
She said the government needs to prioritize getting to the root of what’s causing the algae bloom.
“I can’t imagine breathing that in on a normal basis,” she said. “What caused this? And how do we prevent it?”
Nicole “Nikki” Fried
Political: Democrat, first run for office
Professional: Fried got her start as an attorney practicing commercial litigation in Jacksonville. She then moved to Alachua County, where she was a public defender and head of the felony division in the Eighth Judicial Circuit court. After about three years, she moved to South Florida, where she practices law and runs a one-woman lobbying shop — Igniting Florida.
Education: Fried, who grew up in Miami, attended Palmetto High School. She then went on to the University Florida, where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in political campaigning and a law degree.
Family: Fried was born in Miami, and now lives in Fort Lauderdale. She does not have any children.
By Samantha J. Gross