It wasn’t the inaugural ball Florida’s Democrats hoped to be throwing when they poured millions of dollars and countless hours of energy behind Tallahassee mayor and gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum, but the blue party lights flashed, hor d’oeuvres were passed and the liquor flowed in celebration at FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium.
Just months ago, the Democratic Party was waiting with bated breath for a win. And following a 12-day ordeal of recounts across the state, they had one: Nicole “Nikki” Fried, who will become Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Tuesday morning.
A machine recount eventually confirmed Ron DeSantis’ win over Gillum in a tight race to be Florida’s next governor. And then, after 8.3 million ballots were counted twice — some of them thrice — Gov. Rick Scott beat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by 10,033 votes. The Democrats’ candidates for chief financial officer and attorney general both lost by significant margins.
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That left one statewide Democrat standing: Fried, a South Florida attorney whose first run for office catapulted her to a whole new level. Fried is not just the winner of the Cabinet seat, but she also is now the highest-ranking Democrat in the state and the first woman elected to the job.
“You just have to put yourself out there,” Fried said Monday night. “Don’t be afraid to take power. Wake up every day wanting to change the world, and you’ll make it happen. I’m looking forward to making a big change.”
She, too, endured grueling machine and manual recounts for the razor-thin margin in the race, emerging victorious in the contest to replace term-limited Adam Putnam by just 6,753 votes — a margin of 0.08 percent. Her opponent, Fort Myers Republican Rep. Matt Caldwell, asked a Broward judge then to mandate the county to submit machine recount results to the state, which would give Republicans a net increase. That petition was denied, and Fried kept the win.
So on the eve of her inauguration, the Democrats had their reason to celebrate.
A couple hundred Democrats — and a few Republicans — filled a blue-lit ballroom at FSU’s Stadium. The Miami presence in the room was strong, with notable guests like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former state Sen. Frank Artiles dancing among the crowd.
The last time Fried was the guest of honor at a ball like this was when she became student president of the FSU Seminoles’ bitter rival, the University of Florida. Her sister Jenni Shaffren, who threw that Gainesville party all those years ago, co-chaired the ball for her older sister once again.
“I always post on Facebook that I have such a bad-ass sister,” Shaffren said, before playing a video in tribute to her sister. “I am happy to share my intelligent, beautiful and driven sister with all of Florida.”
As the night went on, a crowd of relatively young and diverse party-goers gathered to hear rapper Wyclef Jean of Fugees fame.
“Oh, Nikki, oh, Nikki,” he sang to the tune of Santana’s “Maria, Maria.” “From Miami, now representing in Tallahassee. Oh, Nikki, oh, Nikki.”
“This is a mother-freakin Democrat Party!” he yelled to the crowd..
Fried addressed reporters in a short briefing, where she said her first-day priorities align with the topics on which she heavily campaigned: expanded access to medical marijuana, improving water-quality issues, ensuring background checks for concealed weapons permits.
One TV reporter called the ball a “non-party party,” and the commissioner-elect laughed.
“It shows that what we campaigned on the entire year was on non-partisan issues,” she said. “These are issues that transcend parties and you see that here tonight.”