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Nikki Fried announces run against Gov. Ron DeSantis: ‘This isn’t democracy – this is fascism.’

Florida’s State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide electoral office, as well as the only Jewish woman ever to win a statewide race, today announced her candidacy to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Fried, 43, a South Florida attorney, acknowledged she has a steep hill to climb, presuming she wins the Democratic primary.

“I’ve been up against odds my entire life,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “I continue to fight the good old boys in Tallahassee. Everywhere I go I hear people say the system doesn’t work for them and my heart breaks for them. Now it’s time to fix the system.”

DeSantis, a Trump acolyte, has been on a roll recently among the former president’s supporters and Florida voters in general, with an approval rating between 50% and 60%. He has a bulging campaign war chest of $31.6 million, and is already being mentioned for a spot on the 2024 GOP national ticket. Politico, The Atlantic and The Daily Beast, among other observers, have pegged DeSantis as Trump without the crazy.

Notwithstanding, Fried is eager to challenge DeSantis.

“We’ll take him on by calling him out for how he’s failing Floridians,” she said.

Fried said that her run against DeSantis could have national implications.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Turnberry Jewish Center Feb. 4 announcing plan to vaccinate Holocaust survivors.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Turnberry Jewish Center Feb. 4 announcing plan to vaccinate Holocaust survivors. By Twitter

To those watching the governor’s race from outside the state, Fried said, “Florida needs your help, and it’s not just about Florida. It’s about the country. This is our opportunity to make sure we aren’t creating a monster for the 2024 election.”

Handicapping Fried’s chances in the race at this stage is problematic, experts say.

“It’s too early to be definitive about her chances,” said Susan MacManus distinguished professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida. “A lot can happen between now and November of 2022.”

MacManus said she is suspicious of early polls, and that fund-raising totals at this point doesn’t mean everything. “I don’t discount her. Things can change.”

Fried, MacManus said, is “a risk taker” and “she’s known as a fighter.”

Frank Orlando, professor of political science at St. Leo University, agreed. Fried’s primary strength, he said, is that “she has more progressive energy behind her campaign. More motivated voters and volunteers are going to be on her side.”

Fried’s Jewish roots in the state are deep. She was raised in the Miami area, and her base in South Florida is likely to be reliable and robust. She went to Jewish day school as a child, was bat mitzvahed, was a member of BBYO as a teen, and has made multiple trips to Israel, at one point contemplating making aliyah.

The last South Florida Jew to win a statewide race was Richard Stone, who served one term in the U.S. Senate from 1975 to 1980. He lost his bid for reelection in the 1980 Democratic primary.

Florida’s sizable Jewish vote in the Democratic primary, estimated between 5% and 8%, is likely to be comfortable with Fried, but she is taking no chances.

Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, recently attended a Zoom meeting which featured Fried, and said “she is impressive as a speaker and has a solid Jewish background.”

“Judaism has always been a part of my path and a part of my identity,” Fried wrote recently to Jewish supporters.

“I know the challenges the Jewish community faces in Florida because I’ve experienced them myself — the veiled and not-so-veiled antisemitism, the discrimination, the disrespect. It’s heartbreaking to see our community continue to be victims of hatred and bigotry.”

Fried also faces a formidable opponent in the Democratic primary: Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who served as Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, and was defeated in 2014 when running for governor as a Democrat. He has been endorsed this time around by fellow Tampa-area U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Recent polls put him well ahead of Fried, although observers caution against reading too much into them.

While a number of other candidates have declared their intention to seek the Democratic nomination, two other Democratic state legislators who have voiced interest in entering the race pose the greatest challenge to Fried: State Senator Annette Taddeo, a Hispanic woman, and State Senator Randolph Bracy, an African American man.

In the election of 2020, Florida Democrats were shellacked, top to bottom, with Trump carrying what was thought to be a swing state by more than 300,000 votes, including about 25% of Jewish voters. Two U.S. House seats were lost, along with some others in the state legislature. Today, the state’s Democrats remain in disarray, still searching for an aggressive, committed leader like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams.

That person could be Nikki Fried, someone unafraid to go on the attack, to take the fight to her opponent.

“That’s the goal,” Fried said. “I’d be glad to take advice from Stacey. What we learned from Georgia is that we need a consistent message, a consistent messenger and a trusted messenger. With those three elements, and an organization, we can win, and we will win. After two decades of Republican rule, it’s time for something new here.”

Fried won her office in 2018 by 8,000 votes, out of eight million cast, the same year that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum lost to DeSantis by 30,000 votes. Fried won by running on a platform of clean air, clean water and medical marijuana — a measure she lobbied successfully for before joining the race.

And, audaciously for a Sun Belt Democrat, she advocated strong gun control, attacking the NRA’s feared lobbyist Marion Hammer. Fried’s base, heavily Jewish Broward County, was where the Parkland shootings took place.

Fried’s decision to run for governor rather than for reelection for agriculture commissioner was simplified recently when Trump endorsed Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson to run for the agriculture post, which would pose a major challenge for Fried.

For the past 18 months Fried has pounded away against what she called DeSantis’ hands-off, do-nothing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandering to his affluent Republican base, DeSantis delayed and then opposed extending lockdowns, disparaged wearing masks and social distancing, saying that opening the state when he did was simply the cost of doing business.

DeSantis also gave preferential vaccine access to residents, physicians and supermarket workers in predominantly upscale areas.

That cost to Florida has been staggering — two million reported cases of COVID-19 — and a death toll of more than 36,000.

(By contrast, Australia and Taiwan, both of which have about the same population as Florida, although aren’t as senior-heavy, imposed stringent regulations, with a resulting death toll for each country of under 1,000.)

“They did not have to die,” Fried said of the Florida fatalities. “If DeSantis had listened to the experts and brought people together, and listened to the science, it didn’t have to be this bad.”

Fried has repeatedly confronted DeSantis on what she believes is his callous combination of arrogance and incompetence.

“My greatest criticism of this governor is his lack of empathy and leadership for the people of Florida. He politicized the response to the pandemic to the detriment of the health of our citizens.”

Pointedly, DeSantis has frozen Fried out of state policy discussions of how to respond to COVID. The governor did not respond to the Forward’s requests for comment.

Fried said DeSantis dutifully parrots Trump and Fox News talking points: “cancel culture,” “election integrity,” “critical race theory” and “vaccine passports.” A strong supporter of private enterprise, he nonetheless endorsed and then signed legislation banning Florida-based cruise lines from requiring passengers to show proof of vaccination, as the CDC has mandated. He announced that in June the state would reject the federal unemployment supplement of $300, beyond the state’s maximum benefit of $275 a week.

When DeSantis pushed through a draconian anti-protest law aimed at the Black Lives Matter movement, Fried tore into him in an oped column in the Miami Herald, comparing him to Asian and Latin American dictators.

“Defeating Ron DeSantis is the only way to bring change to our state,” she said in the Forward interview. “This isn’t democracy — this is fascism.”

Fried also pushed back against DeSantis’ support for what she called a voter suppression law, one that passed on a party line vote in the Republican-controlled Florida legislature. DeSantis signed the measure on Fox News, excluding all Florida journalists — whom he likes to use as a punching bag.

After the bill signing, Fried told reporters: “He is using Fox News as a state news source. We see this in other locations across the world — China, Venezuela.”

“Defeating Ron DeSantis is the only way to bring change to our state,” Fried said.

There have been some missteps for Fried, both personal and political.

There was a public argument with her fiancé, who threw a garbage can towards her in front of witnesses outside a restaurant. And Fried was tardy and tepid in voicing support for a ballot measure — which succeeded in 2020 — mandating a phased increase in Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. That cost her the support of at least one powerful Democratic donor, Orlando trial attorney John Morgan.

If Central Florida U.S. Rep. Val Demings wins the nomination to run for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, as now seems likely, there is the prospect of two women, one Jewish and the other African American, who might try to mirror the victories of Jon Ossoff and Rafael Warnock in neighboring Georgia.

“How can you not see the similarities?” Fried asked in the interview. “Jews and African Americans have been partners for a very long time in the fight for justice. Creating that coalition in the state of Florida will be the winning ticket.”

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