Carl Hiaasen

Matt Caldwell is sweet on Big Sugar. He shouldn’t be Florida’s agriculture commissioner.

Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell conceded Monday afternoon, Nov. 19, 2018, after statewide recounts in the Florida commissioner of agriculture race.
Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell conceded Monday afternoon, Nov. 19, 2018, after statewide recounts in the Florida commissioner of agriculture race. AP File

Last week, there were more buzzards than tourists on some of the beaches in Indian River County.

The birds flocked there to eat the rotting fish that had died from the acrid outbreak of red tide. Officials had closed the public beaches because of the stink and respiratory threat, but naturally a few curious humans went to take pictures and videos.

Buzzards are, in their own ominous way, photogenic.

This year’s onset of red tide has plagued Florida shores from the upper Gulf to the Atlantic. In some communities lifetime residents have never seen anything so bad.

Added to the toxic blue-green algae blooms spurred by polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee, the red-tide crisis has made the state’s deteriorating water quality an eye-and-lung burning issue in Tuesday’s mid-term election.

The races for governor and the U.S. Senate have grabbed most of the attention – all candidates promise that they’re anti-algae – but not far down the ballot is a contest that could have an irreversible impact on what our beaches and waterways will look (and smell) like in the future.

A Republican named Matt Caldwell is running for commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, one of the silliest mash-up titles in Tallahassee. The job is known as “Ag Commissioner” and is historically protective of farmers, ranchers and citrus growers.

Caldwell is a seventh-generation Floridian who has represented the Fort Myers area for eight years in the state House, where his main claim to fame is an A-plus rating from the NRA.

His love of firearms is a featured theme in some of his political commercials, and he broke with many of his GOP colleagues to vote against the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which tightened gun-purchase rules after the Parkland massacre.

Caldwell’s other avid interest is water policy. He has been an unflinching apologist for Florida’s major agricultural polluters and was pivotal in passing the terrible 2016 water bill that basically put corporate farms on the honor system when dumping phosphorus, nitrogen and other fertilizer products.

Three years earlier, Caldwell had successfully pushed to extend a law that spared polluting cane sugar producers many millions of dollars in costs for Everglades cleanup.

His leadership in weakening water-monitoring rules has brought him the predictable torrent of donations, especially from the sugar companies whose irrigation practices have played an execrable role in the decline of the Everglades.

Caldwell is correct when he asserts that Big Sugar isn’t the only major source of harmful runoff in state waters – but now listen to what he says about companies such as U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals:

“I don’t view them as any more or less sinful than the rest of us that live here. We all have some kind of impact on changing the environment.”

Ah! So Big Sugar is behaving no worse than any of us who’ve ever flushed a toilet or switched on our lawn sprinklers. The one teeny, tiny difference is that Big Sugar has been using the liquid heart of the Everglades as its vast, septic drain field.

Caldwell has supported building the too-small reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for storing water during rainy seasons, instead of pumping it to the coasts. But as for cleaning up the water before it enters the lake, that would require cracking down on some groves, farms, cattle ranches and fast-developing municipalities.

Nothing in Caldwell’s record suggests he would pursue more regulation. Just the opposite: He helped extend by 20 years the deadline for reducing phosphorus levels in water entering Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River.

Supporters of Nikki Fried, his Democratic opponent, aren’t wrong when they call Caldwell “Big Sugar’s candidate.” He and other GOP officeholders, including Gov. Rick Scott, have been guests on secret hunting trips to a Texas ranch on property leased by U.S. Sugar.

Caldwell said he did nothing wrong and expressed no regrets.

Whoever becomes the new commissioner of agricultural and “consumer services” faces an unprecedented water crisis that has battered the state’s image and beachfront tourism. Some scientists believe this year’s expansive red tide is a grim vision of the future, made worse by warming temperatures and manmade nutrients being recklessly flushed along the coasts.

Farming and ranching are vital to Florida’s economy, but nothing is more vital than clean water. The last person we should elect now is another politician whose marching orders come from well-connected polluters.

Unless you want to make the buzzard our new state bird.