Meet the Florida Democrats running to oust GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis points to the ceiling in front of a Christmas tree with a bear on it
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Locked out of a trifecta of majority control in the state legislature and governorship since 1992, these three Democrats are vying to take back Tallahassee’s corner office for the first time since 1998.

Beloved by the GOP base for bucking pandemic restrictions, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is already considered a rising star and contender for the 2024 Republican presidential primaries.

Before getting there, he’ll have to defeat one of the Democrats seeking to thwart his 2022 reelection bid.

Insider spoke with three of them: US Rep. Charlie Crist, who is a former Republican governor; Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Florida State Sen. Annette Taddeo.

Although DeSantis’ approval rating ebbed at a few points in the pandemic, he remains the seventh most popular governor in the country and helped former President Donald Trump carry the Sunshine State in the 2020 election by a healthy margin of 3 percentage points. DeSantis’ comments and culture war clashes have heightened his profile on cable TV, such as fining hospitals that require staff to receive COVID-19 vaccines and for mandating public universities teach different political viewpoints or risk their funding. 

The GOP’s statewide dominance since the mid-1990s has led some Florida political observers to declare any of the Democratic candidates beating DeSantis as a longshot.

DeSantis’ office declined Insider’s requests for comment or an interview.

Insider’s Global Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Carlson interviewed each of these candidates this fall. Their responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Insider: What do you think President Biden got wrong about Florida in 2020? 

Fried: We didn’t fight back. There was a lot of disorganization. We spent just barely enough to force Trump to spend money in the state. We didn’t have a game plan for the Hispanic community. We didn’t have a game plan for combating the socialism narrative. And so, we weren’t organized. We weren’t on the ground. And we allowed the narrative and the rhetoric to control the airwaves.

Crist: The Democratic Party didn’t really have a ground game. Probably for the right reasons. The pandemic was not exactly the best environment to be going knocking on people’s doors. So, my hope and my prayer is that by the time we get to next fall and have a robust field program this virus will be more significantly in the rear-view mirror. 

In addition, voter registration is incredibly important. We’ve seen the numbers diminish for the Democratic Party statewide.

Thirdly, I think fighting back on socialism or whatever they’re going to throw out — particularly in Miami-Dade, South Florida where that kind of a message has a better opportunity to stick than anywhere in the U.S., simply by the fact that so many of our residents in southeast Florida have come from such regimes. You know, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba. I’ve been fighting back on that instead of sort of ignoring it. 

Just fighting back can make an enormous difference instead of almost being silent on the issue.

Taddeo: It’s not just the Biden campaign, it’s also just Democrats, and it’s been going on for a little bit. And to be exact, a while. It’s the erosion of the Hispanic vote and the lack of defending what are outrageous attacks — but nonetheless successful attacks — in many instances, toward Democrats. What I mean by outrageous is socialist, communist — this has been the way campaigns are done, especially in Miami, Florida. And in South Florida specifically.

But it seems to have expanded throughout, and certainly has made inroads with the Hispanic community. So that criticism of mine was before Biden and during Biden.

The reason why it didn’t work on me is because we fought back, we fought back hard. And we did it with my personal story. But even if you don’t have a personal story, you still have to push back. It’s almost like, if you’re in the fighting ring, and you keep getting major blows to your head, you know, at some point you start bleeding and eventually they knock you out. You must fight back. And I fight hard.

Annette Taddeo speaks to a voter.
Annette Taddeo at a 2018 rally.

Insider: Sen. Taddeo, in plain terms, could you explain the difference between progressive Democrats and some of these socialist governments the Florida GOP compares your party to? 

Taddeo: When it comes to issues, I can tell you that I know in my community, most people are like looking forward to turning 65 and having Medicare. And that is a Democratic Party policy that no one would say, including Republicans, “Oh I’m 65, I don’t want it because that’s a government handout.” It is not. The same thing where, you know, Social Security for example. I don’t see anybody sending back a check.

So we as Democrats need to do a much better job of explaining what these programs mean and why they are so popular. And through the history of the United States, why we as Democrats have actually brought more people into the middle class, have had programs that have been long-standing and no politician would dare take them back.

Insider: Commissioner Fried, there hasn’t been a trifecta of Democratic control in the Florida legislature and the governorship since 1992. The legislature has had Republican majorities in both chambers since 1997. If that’s the way things are gonna go, how do you get anything done as governor?

Fried: Well first, I am masterful at bringing people together. Having got elected, that’s who I am. My first legislative session I passed the majority of my bills because I know how to work across the aisle and work with the Republicans. And I know them all. Having done government consulting for seven years, I know the incoming leadership. I know the current leadership and there’s also a very powerful tool, two powerful tools.

One is the veto pen and the second is calling the legislature back into session and calling special session. So, if you’re unwilling to work with me, they will then become a full-time legislator. And that’s not a tool that I would like to use, but certainly there’s gonna be a lot of things that we’re gonna be able to really come together on.

NBC NEWS ELECTION COVERAGE -- The First Democratic Debate -- Pictured: Nikki Fried, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner at The Knight Concert Hall, Miami Florida on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 -- (Photo by: Gustavo Cabellero /NBC News/MSNBC/Telemundo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Fried, pictured in 2019, is the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida.

Insider: Why do you think DeSantis doesn’t want cruise ships to be able to check if passengers are vaccinated?

Crist: I can’t imagine in my wildest imagination why he would be opposed to having a safety-first policy. That’s what the cruise industry itself wants to do desperately for good reason. They want to protect their crew members. They want to protect their customers. They want to be a good business operation and do the right thing. Why that’s objectionable to the governor of the third-largest state in the country is beyond my comprehension. And I think it’s hurting him.

It appears to me, and I think a lot of people, that he’s auditioning for the hard right Republican primary vote for the 2024 presidential election.

What he’s done on COVID, resulting in a total of over 55,000 Floridians having lost their lives? Not advocating masking, not advocating social distancing, not advocating getting a vaccine, you know? All for the cause of God knows what. The results have been horrific.

Taddeo: It is not policy. It is all about primary voters in Iowa, which has nothing to do with Floridians. And this is why I say, we need a governor that actually will represent all Floridians and not be more worried about primary voters in Iowa. That’s what we currently have.

And look, I represent a Trump district, and I can tell you, I don’t just represent the people who voted for me, I represent everyone. Yes, not everyone is going to like your positions. But you have to look in the best interests of everyone, not your future political ambitions. It’s outrageous.

Fried: He created a culture war when it came to COVID. Whether it was masks or the vaccine. He took the position — which was the position of the very small minority of our state — that he was not going to allow our businesses to require or ask that their consumers be vaccinated. It’s contrary to everything I’ve ever known about the Republican party: the free market and allowing businesses to do what they believe is in their best interest.

Insider: What would you have done differently in handling the pandemic?

Taddeo: I do have many differences with DeSantis and many criticisms with regards, clearly, especially with our children’s safety. And trying to mandate no masks in our schools and trying to remove duly elected people. So, I mean look I am a mom first and foremost, with a daughter in public school. And that was definitely something that I felt he crossed the line.

When we have a governor that is trying to tell private businesses what they can and cannot do, again, go back to the dictatorships of Latin America, that’s what they do there. Where you are trying to punish businesses for trying to do what they feel is in their best interest to get their business back up and running after a very tough time dealing with this global pandemic.

So do I think it will be an issue by Election Day?  It probably is going to be an issue. It should be an issue. But it may not. I mean, we are more than a year away.

Fried: He created chaos by not giving accurate information, by creating this culture war, getting very angry at reporters, and dividing our state. During times of turmoil, people are supposed to come together. You saw that after 9/11. You see that after hurricanes and fires out west. People come together during these tragedies. Instead, he created chaos. He divided our state attacking our local schools and our local officials. It was his way or the highway when it came to COVID response. 

I would do it very differently. Very transparent. Giving people all the information. I can’t tell you how many times during this pandemic, people, reporters, and local communities were asking for information. Whether that was information coming out about nursing homes; information coming out of our schools; information coming out of the jails. And we never got accurate information. So it made people doubt science; made people doubt government; and it really created this frenzy in our state. During the Delta surge, he went MIA. He didn’t encourage the vaccine after seniors and his donors received it.

Crist: I would have listened to the CDC. I would have listened to healthcare providers. I would have respected science. I would have respected Dr. Fauci rather than mocking him. I would have advocated for getting the vaccine. I mean, I’m doing it as a member of Congress, in fact. I just got a booster. We sent out a photo on social media about it, just to encourage people, like President Biden has done. I would have advocated mask wearing. I would advocated social distancing. I would just follow the science, and listen to healthcare professionals and the CDC and do what some other states have done and kept their numbers down while ours have exploded.

Rep. Charlie Crist
Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), candidate for Governor of Florida, participates in a Voting Rights Tour event held at the Lallos Restaurant in Lauderhill, Florida, on June 10, 2021.

Insider: Rep. Crist, do you think DeSantis’ handling of COVID will still be an issue on voters’ minds by November 2022?

Crist: Conventional wisdom says they have a short memory, and that once things get better, all if forgotten. Well maybe that’s generally true if you’re talking about not increasing teacher salaries, for example. But when you’re talking about over 55,000 dead Floridians, that’s a completely different genre. 

I live in St. Pete, in Pinellas County. We do not have a mask mandate in Pinellas County. And I have a five-year-old niece that went to elementary school. She contracted COVID. She brought it home. She has a younger sister who’s two months old, who last week contracted COVID. Those kinds of real stories that are personal, that are heartfelt, that matter to people and are not the kind of thing that are forgotten.

They’re remembered. They’re vivid. And you know, as the numbers have skyrocketed over the summer in Florida, I think that he’s got a real problem, and it’s reflected in his approval dropping like 14 [percentage] points in a month. In the latest public poll,  our campaign’s up on him by 10 points. That’s pretty dramatic stuff.

Insider: Do you support mandates from the government that require citizens to get vaccinated if they want to use public spaces like schools, workplaces, airplanes, et cetera?

Fried: I am not there yet on government mandates. What I am in favor of is obviously letting businesses make their decisions for their own businesses, whether it’s their employees or their customers. I’m in favor of allowing each local government municipality to make decisions for themselves. 

Taddeo: Look I think the federal government has every right to impose certain mandates. We have done it historically. That is how we got rid of polio. And I can’t believe we’re having this discussion where, you know, this is- this is actually somehow something outrageous when history does tell us that this is one way to make sure that we get rid of this virus. And frankly, once and for all, we should try to do that. But again, I do think that when you overreach into businesses and trying to tell businesses what to do, at times to tell local communities what they think is best for their community, I think that’s when you are overstepping in your role.

Crist: The reality is that we do it for an awful lot of vaccines already for school – measles, mumps, the list goes on. It’s like, double digits of different viruses that we vaccinate against. So now we’re dealing with this pandemic that’s been one of the most deadly in over 100 years. It actually surpassed the Spanish flu, or whatever people want to refer to it as, of 1918, 1919. We’re at a point in our history where we’ve never really faced something quite this devastating. So if now isn’t the time to do it I’m not sure when. 

If I were governor now I would have required all state employees to be vaccinated. And I understand there may be some religious concerns for some about that. I would try to be respectful of that of course to the degree that you can be. But maybe they would have to work remotely out of respect for others in the workplace who have decided to get a vaccine under the strong encouragement of the state government under a Crist administration.

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