Editorial: Republicans in Tallahassee are trying to squelch the one Democrat holding statewide office. They are going to extremes.
The lone Democrat holding statewide office in Florida, Nicole “Nikki” Fried, seems to be getting under Republicans’ skin.
For one thing, Gov. Ron DeSantis is working to strip Fried’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services of one of its functions: the Office of Energy.
Fried — if you’ll pardon the expression — has re-energized the office since becoming agriculture commissioner a year ago, making a priority of energy efficiency and renewable energy. In this short time, her office among other things produced a lengthy plan on energy and hosted a statewide summit on energy and climate change, the first in a decade.
Now comes what Fried calls a “partisan power grab.” She’s right. It’s curious that a Republican governor is suddenly intent on taking over over an oft-orphaned office that was bounced around to three different agencies before landing in the Agriculture Department in 2011.
Could it perhaps, possibly, conceivably have something to do with Fried being the first Democrat in a dozen years to be elected to a cabinet-level position — and to try to make the most of it?
DeSantis is following a well-worn script. When Democrats recently clawed back to win the governorships of Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republicans promptly took steps to strip those offices of their powers to render the new office-holder impotent. Luckily, courts or voters blunted much of these efforts.
But what has really gotten Florida Republicans’ goat is that Fried has plastered her smiling face on inspection stickers on thousands of gas pumps around the state. She says that displaying her image offers consumers an added touch of accountability. Sure. But it’s also excellent marketing for a politician who might have her sights set on re-election or a bid for higher office in 2022.
A spokesman for House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, thunders that the Fried-beaming stickers are “unseemly, self-promoting and contrary to taxpayer interests” — which would be a reasonable criticism if it didn’t come from political rivals who might simply be jealous that they didn’t think of the ploy first.
The Republican-dominated Legislature decreed last year that the stickers had to go; Fried’s office says they took the directive to mean a prohibition on new stickers. But now, House Republicans are saying that Fried ignored them — and that if she doesn’t come up with a plan to replace the stickers, they will withhold $19.7 million in programs for the Agriculture Department.
Talk about petty politics.
Fried’s office spent $5,000 for 120,000 inspection stickers. For that $5,000 so “contrary to taxpayer interests,” Republicans now threaten to hold back almost $20 million. That would hurt not Nikki Fried but thousands of Floridians who rely on consumer protections.
Franco Ripple, a Fried spokesman, says the gas-pump stickers are already being replaced. Yet the “outrageous” House proposal “jeopardizes active criminal investigations, 61,000 lab analyses, almost 9,000 fair ride inspections and the handling of nearly 400,000 consumer inquiries and complaints.” He added that “the jobs of 284 hardworking state employees could be at risk — perhaps indefinitely.”
It is outrageous that lawmakers would play hardball in this manner: threatening to halt important services for everyday Floridians just to put an upstart political rival in her place.
Given this context, it’s not hard to ascribe political motives for DeSantis’ effort to grab the Office of Energy for himself. The method of acquisition is through the Legislature: Under a bill approved last week by a House subcommittee, the Office of Energy would leave the Agriculture Department for a new home in the Department of Environmental Protection.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is seeking to place the DEP under his direct control. Same with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Currently, those departments report to independently elected members of the Florida Cabinet (which, besides the governor, include the attorney general, chief financial officer … and Agriculture Commissioner Fried).
The 76-page Florida Energy and Climate Plan produced by Fried’s Office of Energy urges that Florida start to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and in the near term focus on energy conservation. It’s a far more plainspoken and aggressive approach to fighting climate change than we’ve seen from any state leader in quite a while. If DeSantis does take control of this office, it will be his responsibility to build upon this approach — not smother it, as so many in his party have done.
Fried might not be doing everything right, but she has shown that she isn’t afraid to stir up a certain amount of trouble — good trouble. She deserves the public’s support as she battles those trying to stop her for purely political reasons.