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Fried Takes Swipes At DeSantis Over COVID-19 Leadership In Cabinet Meeting

Jessica Yeary being sworn-in virtually as public defender
Jessica Yeary
Jessica Yeary being sworn-in virtually as public defender

Simmering political tensions between Governor Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are only getting worse. The two clashed during Thursday’s Cabinet meeting over the state's COVID-19 response.

Florida’s unique power-sharing system known as the Cabinet has been in existence in some form for nearly 200 years, since before statehood in 1845. But DeSantis rarely sees the need to seek guidance from the three statewide elected Cabinet members.

As Thursday’s one-hour session began, the Cabinet’s only Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, asked for a moment of silence for Florida victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Governor,” Fried said, “before I think we get started, I’d like to have a moment of silence for the 100,000 Americans and the 2,300 Floridians who have died from the COVID-19.”

The meeting, conducted by telephone, fell silent for about five seconds.

The Cabinet had not met since Feb. 4, weeks before the pandemic occurred. Toward the end of the meeting Fried restated her concerns about the lack of interaction among the governor and Cabinet.

“Each of us was independently elected by the people of this great state,” Fried said. “Each of us has received more than 4 million votes and was put here to do a job. And for the most critical four months of this pandemic, the Cabinet has been left in the dark," she said.

Fried had asked that the state’s chief health officer, banking regulator and tax collector all appear at Thursday’s meeting. But none of them showed and Fried said the governor ignored her request. DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, did not respond to a request for comment by WFSU.

Republican chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, came to the governor’s defense, praising his handling of the pandemic.

“Thank God we have Governor DeSantis and not Governor Cuomo,” Patronis said speaking in defense of DeSantis.

The next Cabinet did vote on a series of issues, including a list of possible land acquisitions under the Florida Forever program; land purchases in Franklin and Hendry counties. They also made two appointments to a state investment advisory board, including Pat Neal, a prominent Sarasota real estate developer and former legislator.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.