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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The two candidates running for Florida Agriculture Commissioner participated in a debate on live TV Sunday morning.
Democrat Nikki Fried, a medical-marijuana lobbyist, had to defend her desire to move the state’s oversight of medical marijuana into the agency she wants to run.
Her Republican opponent, state Rep. Matt Caldwell, was questioned about his support for a bill that delayed for 20 years an unmet deadline to reduce nutrients flowing into Lake Okeechobee.
Fried and Caldwell — running in the Nov. 6 election to replace term-limited Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and head the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — engaged in a fast-paced debate Sunday during the show “Facing South Florida” on CBS Miami.
While the two have appeared at the same events during the campaign, the television show was the first and only time they are scheduled to jointly discuss issues.
The show’s host, veteran reporter Jim DeFede, ran through a series of topics, including the department’s handling of concealed-weapons licenses under Putnam, marijuana, water quality, the North American Free Trade Agreement, immigration, clemency and the state’s “Do Not Call” solicitation list.
Fried, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and lobbyist who recently was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Caldwell, a North Fort Myers real-estate appraiser who has been part of the Republican leadership of the state House, differed on almost every issue, including their approaches to strengthen the “Do Not Call” list.
DeFede jokingly said stopping the “annoying” phone calls would be the key to winning the statewide contest.
Caldwell said the agency needs to investigate and prosecute “scam artists” and suggested the agency set up a system so people can immediately text the agency from their cellphones the numbers of telemarketers.
“It’s really about time,” Caldwell said. “As soon as they give you the call, reporting that and getting that investigation away immediately, that’s going to improve the chances that we can track them down through the internet to where they’re hiding.”
Fried, a former attorney with the Alachua County Public Defender’s Office, agreed with Caldwell that improving technology and quickly starting investigations is needed. But she said the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must also provide more consumer services.
“When individuals actually are calling in and complaining about these things, there is no one on the other line,” Fried said. “So one of the other things, when I’m in office, is to reprioritize the consumer services of this job to make sure there is someone actually on the other line to answer these complaints.”
Fried, who was a registered lobbyist this year for the marijuana operator San Felasco Nurseries, faced stiffer questioning about her stances on the separate issues of moving the state’s oversight of medical marijuana from the Department of Health to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and her criticism that the Putnam-run agency has been too cozy with the National Rifle Association.
Putnam, a Republican, has drawn Democratic criticism, in part, for a past statement that he was a proud NRA “sellout.” The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is in charge of issuing concealed-weapons licenses.
Fried said she is “beholden” to patients who need medical marijuana, not the industry that she has represented and has supported her campaign. She pointed to criticism that the GOP-dominated Legislature has not properly carried out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in the state.
“My campaign is supported by many people, including over 1,000 individuals, who have given campaign contributions, who believe that they deserve access,” Fried said. “Seventy-two percent of our citizens voted for medical marijuana, and the Legislature and the governor’s office continues to put up roadblocks.”
Caldwell, who is endorsed by the NRA, said he’d “let the voters” decide who Fried is beholden to, while noting he co-sponsored a bill in 2014 — commonly known as the “Charlotte’s Web” bill — that legalized limited types of non-euphoric medical cannabis.
However, Caldwell was put on the defensive as discussion turned to a 2016 water bill and problems with toxic algae and red tide that have plagued waterways and coastal areas in Southeast and Southwest Florida.
Fried said water legislation by Caldwell “gutted” Department of Environmental Protection regulations and has played a key role in degrading the state’s environment.
Caldwell, who has been a point man for the Republican-dominated House on water issues, said his measures require farmers to implement “the most cutting-edge technology” related to the use of phosphates and didn’t roll back any water quality standards.
One of the state’s key water issues has involved polluted water being released from Lake Okeechobee and going into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, helping lead to algae in waterways.
DeFede asked if the 2016 bill — which included issues such as extending the deadline related to nutrients flowing into Lake Okeechobee and limiting responsibilities for water-management districts on water supplies — “kicked that problem down the road.”
Caldwell replied that “the original bill was to develop a plan for how you’re going to solve Lake Okeechobee” and that his legislation drew bipartisan support.
“Lake Okeechobee is going to be the biggest problem to solve,” Caldwell continued. “It’s got 100 years of inputs, muck just sitting at the bottom of the lake. That’s a much larger question than how we’re going to reconfigure the flood control system.”
After Fried retorted that Caldwell’s Southwest Florida district is suffering from the water-quality problems, Caldwell said people are misrepresenting the issue for political gain.
“This is why this problem didn’t get addressed for 20 years. It’s why I ran for the House,” Caldwell said. “People are misrepresenting what the situation is. People are trying to utilize this bad situation to make political gains, rather than focusing on solutions, rather than bringing people together.”
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.
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