A mere 16 days before the midterm election, the two candidates looking to replace Adam Putnam as Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services traveled to Miami Sunday morning for their first and only televised debate.
Republican candidate Rep. Matt Caldwell and Democratic candidate, Fort Lauderdale attorney and lobbyist Nikki Fried, sparred for 30 minutes from CBSMiami’s Doral studios while making their case to hold one of the Florida’s largest — and lesser-known — statewide offices.
The agriculture commissioner, who oversees 3,600 employees, also takes responsibility for regulating an amalgam of consumer products: gas station pumps, roller coasters, produce weights, do-not-call lists, to start. They also oversee the concealed weapons permitting process and parts of the medical marijuana industry. The department also, of course, oversees the agriculture industry and water quality — an issue that has taken greater importance this year as red tide and blue-green algae.
CBS4 reporter Jim Defede moderated the debate, which tackled a wide array of topics at breakneck speed.
Didn’t catch the 8 a.m. broadcast? Here’s what you missed:
The debate kicked off with one of the most hotly discussed topics surrounding the agriculture commissioner’s office: concealed weapons permitting. Whoever gets elected to the job will be 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.
The National Rifle Association’s hand in the office also came up, citing a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found NRA lobbyists giving direct orders to Putnam’s staff.
The NRA’s first endorsement of 2018 was awarded to Caldwell, who maintains an “A+” rating.
Caldwell said his close relationship to the NRA does not make him unfit for the job, because he is “beholden to the 21 million people of Florida,” not the special interest group. He says if he were to win in November, he wants direct oversight about the safeguards and checks currently in place.
Fried, on the other hand, wants to discuss moving oversight of the permitting process to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement instead. She says the current office doesn’t take every step of the background checks seriously.
“Your dismissive attitude shows that you think that step was not important,” she told Caldwell. “That is going to continue the policies of Commissioner Putnam, and that’s very irresponsible.”
In the same way Caldwell has garnered the support of the gun community, Fried has brought in endorsements and donations from the medical marijuana community.
Does that make her too close to the industry to regulate it?
She says no.
And what about smokable medical marijuana?
“I support smoking the flower,” Fried told DeFede. Caldwell says he’d get behind it if a doctor said it was effective.
DeFede continued to ask rapid fire questions about the candidates’ stance on various other hot button topics, to which the two gave opposing answers almost every time.
Caldwell will vote no on Amendment 4, which restores voting right to nonviolent felons. Fried will vote yes. He doesn’t oppose President Donald Trump’s recent NAFTA negotiation with Canada and Mexico. She candidate does.
Caldwell said he wants people to be able to text the department to report robocalls in the state. Fried wants more staff answering the phones.
They disagreed on Caldwell’s water policy.
During his time as a representative, he has played a role in supporting the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, pushing the Florida Forever bill and drafting a water policy bill that eased restrictions on polluters.
Caldwell said the decisions are misunderstood and misrepresented to the public. Fried said he’s “just not accurate.”
The debate ended quickly, with the candidates both running out of time on their 30-second pitch to voters.
“I want to make sure people have a voice,” Fried concluded. “Whether that is medical marijuana, protecting our citizens against those individuals who may not have had concealed weapons permits done correctly and making sure the environment comes first. I come in with a new perspective, new ideas, a new approach.”
Caldwell had the final word:
“It comes down to experience and leadership. Over the last eight years, I’ve dealt with the environment, with agriculture, with conservation. I’ve made them a priority and I’ll make them a priority as the commissioner of agriculture.”