FPL and Big Sugar want Nikki Fried to be the Democratic nominee for governor
The biggest difference between Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried may be how they would handle FPL, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar
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The most politically powerful businesses in Florida are probably electric provider Florida Power & Light and Big Sugar producers Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
And the biggest difference in this year’s Democratic primary for governor between Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried might just be how the candidates would handle these three corporate giants.
We can see this in both money and policy
Let’s start with policy.
As Florida’s attorney general from 2002 to 2006 and governor from 2006 to 2010, Charlie Crist used the powers of his office to fight FPL. Most significantly, he appointed a pro-consumer Public Service Commission that prevented FPL from imposing a record-setting rate increase on its customers in 2010.
As Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried used the powers of her office to help FPL. Specifically, Fried joined FPL and other utility companies in the fall of 2019 in an effort to gut an energy-efficiency law.
Meanwhile, as governor, Crist tried to put Big Sugar out of business. He struck a $1.75 billion deal to buy U.S. Sugar and turn its farmland back over to the Everglades – a deal hailed at the time as “the death knell for Big Sugar.” (The deal eventually collapsed, due partly to the global recession and partly to lobbying against it by Florida Crystals.)
As agriculture commissioner, Fried protected Big Sugar’s business.
After a group of residents sued the sugar companies to end pre-harvest burning in sugarcane fields — an easy way to harvest sugarcane that produces a toxic soot known as “black snow” — Fried’s office announced a handful of new rules that allegedly strengthened burning regulations.
But the Palm Beach Post reported this week that Fried’s new rules didn’t really change anything at all. All they did was give the appearance of better regulation — which the sugar companies then used to defend themselves in the lawsuit.
Fried would not agree to an interview with the Palm Beach Post for that story. But she and her campaign insist she made “historic” reforms that protected the low-income communities around sugar country who are most exposed to the public-health impacts of pre-harvest burning.
Among those who disagree: Former state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez.
“Recent updates to pre-harvest sugar field burning do not appear to offer sufficient protections for the health and well-being of all impacted Floridians,” Rodriguez (D-Miami) wrote in a Sept. 25, 2020, letter to Fried that urged her to use her power to stop sugar-field burning completely.
Six weeks after he wrote that letter, Rodriguez lost re-election by 32 votes — thanks to a “ghost candidate” election scheme that was used to siphon votes away from him.
And this is probably a good place to move on to the money.
Since Fried’s election as agriculture commissioner, committees controlled by the big-business lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida have given $265,000 to Florida Consumers First. AIF’s committees haven’t given anything to Friends of Charlie Crist.
This is mainly FPL and Big Sugar money. Campaign-finance records show that more than half of all the money that has been put into AIF’s committees comes from FPL, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
Similarly, committees controlled by another big-business lobbying group — the Florida Chamber of Commerce — have given $50,000 to Florida Consumers First. They’ve given nothing to Friends of Charlie Crist.
Once again, this is primarily FPL and Big Sugar. More than half of all the money put into the Chamber’s committees also comes from FPL, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
And then there’s all the anonymous money — contributions that come from dark-money nonprofits that don’t disclose their own donors or that have been laundered through a maze of gray-money political committees to make it impossible to identify the original source of the funds.
Records show that Nikki Fried has raised more than $2 million in anonymous money into Florida Consumers First. That’s more than one-third of all the money in her committee.
Crist has raised roughly $250,000 in anonymous money into Friends of Charlie Crist — less than 5 percent of his total.
Think of it this way: More than $1 out of every $3 that Fried has raised into her political committee comes from donors whose identities have been deliberately hidden from voters.
Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure who’s behind this money. That’s the whole point of steering donations through dark-money nonprofits and gray-money political committees rather than giving them directly to the candidate. (But remember: While you don’t know who’s behind this money, the campaigns themselves do.)
But we can get a pretty good idea of where much of it is coming from. Here are just two examples:
Fried has received $87,500 from a political committee called “Florida Alliance for Better Government.” It’s controlled by a longtime Democratic Party consultant and lobbyist who represents FPL and U.S. Sugar.
And more than two-thirds of the money that Florida Alliance for Better Government has raised comes from FPL, U.S. Sugar, AIF and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
You might also remember Grow United. That was the dark-money nonprofit used in the ghost candidate scheme that took down Jose Javier Rodriguez. Grow United was created and controlled by operatives whose biggest clients included FPL & Florida Crystals.
During that 2020 campaign, money from Grow United was filtered through 13 different political committees. Those same committees have given more than $300,000 to Fried. (One of them also gave $4,750 to Crist.)
This is not to say that all the anonymous money coursing through Fried’s campaign comes from FPL and Big Sugar.
But a big chunk of it almost certainly does.
It’s worth noting here that Florida’s next governor — whether Gov. Ron DeSantis is re-elected or one of his Democratic challengers defeats him — is going to face some big tests related to FPL and Big Sugar.
FPL is almost certain to try once again to eliminate net metering, a policy that makes rooftop solar panels more affordable for Florida homeowners (and makes those homeowners less reliant on FPL-produced power). The next governor will also referee debates over how aggressively to wean FPL and other utilities off of fossil fuels; whether to encourage more competition from solar companies; and whether to let the utilities corner the market on electric-vehicle charging stations.
And there’s still a war raging in South Florida about what to do with the water in Lake Okeechobee.
The sugar industry wants to keep as much water as possible stored in the lake, which it relies on for irrigation during the dry season. But environmentalists, fishing guides and others are pushing for lower storage levels — partly to avoid sudden rapid discharges if the lake gets too full that pollute the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, and partly to free up more fresh water that can be sent south to what remains of the Everglades.
Florida’s next governor will play a big role in deciding the fate of that fight.