The Republican candidate for the seat calls it the “Commissioner of Dirty Jobs.” The Democratic candidate calls it the “People’s Commissioner.”
The unexpectedly heated race for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services has been thrust into the national spotlight this fall, but what exactly does the commissioner do?
The commissioner oversees 19 offices and about 3,600 employees. They serve a four-year term with a limit of two consecutive terms. The current commissioner, Adam Putnam, makes $128,972 annually.
The office oversees such diverse things as gas pumps, rollercoasters, school lunch and state fairs. The commissioner holds votes on more dire topics, like issues of clemency. They are responsible for concealed-weapons licensing. And, of course, they oversee one the state’s largest industries — agriculture.
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The cabinet-level role is wide-reaching and broad, and the candidates in the running bring vastly different experiences that will likely affect the way the office is run.
On the Republican ticket for the job is state Rep. Matt Caldwell, of Fort Myers. The seventh-generation Floridian and real estate appraiser has a deep family background in farming. Although he calls himself a “champion of issues that impact our environment,” some environmentalists don’t recognize him as such.
Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, once called Caldwell’s support of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee the “worst of all possibly good outcomes.”
Since he was elected to the Florida House in 2010, Caldwell has been involved in legislation related to Everglades restoration and land acquisition for conservation. Earlier this year, Caldwell snagged notable endorsements from Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Matt Gaetz and the National Rifle Association. The North Fort Myers representative chaired the Government Accountability committee last session and sat on both the Rules & Policy and Ways & Means committees.
Caldwell’s opponent is South Florida attorney and lobbyist Nikki Fried, who says she comes to the role with a more consumer services-focused agenda. She was recently endorsed by Florida AFL-CIO, one of the state’s largest union coalitions, and says her work over the last seven years lobbying for foster children, public education and medical marijuana provides a “fresh start” to the commissioner’s role.
Fried made national news recently after banking giants Wells Fargo and BB&T closed her official campaign bank accounts, citing her campaign contributions from the marijuana industry. She’s used the incidents to highlight a troublesome disconnect between federal and state laws, and has since gained the support of former governor and current Congressman Charlie Crist in a push for marijuana reform.
In addition to pushing for expanded access to medical marijuana, Fried is also campaigning on the idea of using industrial hemp as a way to revitalize the state’s agriculture industry, particularly in areas affected by citrus greening or unproductive offseasons.
The agriculture commissioner oversees some aspects of the medical marijuana industry in Florida, including pesticides and food safety.
While Fried has made expanding access to medical marijuana a large part of her campaign, both candidates want to see medical marijuana regulation moved under Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services as opposed to the Department of Health.
When the new commissioner steps into the role, they will have some pre-existing issues that already need addressing.
For one, they are tasked with addressing background checks for concealed-weapons applicants. 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 openly carry a gun in public 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.
Caldwell says if he were to win in November, he wants direct oversight about the safeguards and checks currently in place.
“That kind of scenario can’t happen again,” he said, referring to the breach on Putnam’s watch. “People who deceive their employer need to be fired.”
The National Rifle Association endorsed Caldwell in June, lauding his “unyielding support of the Second Amendment” and expressing its trust in his ability to administer concealed weapons licensing.
Fried, who has a concealed carry license and owns a gun, said conducting an audit of the background check process is at the top of her list.
“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. “Whether it’s redirecting resources, whether it’s a policy issue — I want to change those things.”
Whoever wins the seat will also serve in the Cabinet where, among other things, they have a vote on restoring voting rights to felons as well as the sale or purchase of state land. The commissioner is also tasked with appointing the director of the Office of Financial Regulation, which oversees the state’s banking industry.
Other responsibilities of note include overseeing the “Fresh From Florida” program for agricultural producers across the state and working with the federal government when it comes to NAFTA negotiations.
The job description is sweeping, and its responsibilities affect many industries across the state. However, voting in the primary did not quite hold up to the marquee governor’s race. About 3.1 million people voted for governor, while just 2.9 million voted for the commissioner’s seat.
Some say that the gap can be attributed to the ballot structure or the general lack of media attention to the race for a seat like agriculture commissioner.
“The further down the ballot you go in terms of length and voters’ familiarity with the candidates, the more roll off you are going to get,” said Michael Martinez, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Martinez added that the increase in press coverage after the primary could actually increase voter awareness heading into the general election.
“Wells Fargo closing Nikki Fried’s account made the New York Times,” he said. “That has generated a little more interest in the race.”
Follow Samantha J. Gross at @samanthajgross