Nikki Fried comes out slugging against Charlie Crist in Dem gubernatorial primary debate
Nikki Fried / Nikki Fried for governor campaign.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried each pitched themselves to Florida’s Democratic voters as the potential party nominee most likely to make Ron DeSantis a one-term governor during a televised debate on Thursday evening.

The two major candidates in the August primary race did so during a one-hour bilingual contest jointly organized by NBC 6 in Miami and the Telemundo Florida network of TV stations. It is the only scheduled debate between the two.

Fried offered repeated attacks on Crist’s time as a Republican governor, before he switched to the Democratic Party. She criticized justices he placed on the Florida Supreme Court (which will soon decide the future of abortion rights in Florida) and diversion of money from an affordable housing trust fund, among other complaints.

“Look, we both want to beat Ron DeSantis. But I have been doing it for four years as your only statewide elected Democrat. So, you have a choice: We can keep losing, or we can try something new,” Fried said.

She referred to her service as commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services on the Florida Cabinet, where she has frequently crossed the governor on policy. She boasted: “I make him nervous.”

Fried is an attorney and serves as the only Democrat holding statewide elective office. Crist is a former Republican governor, Attorney General and Education Commissioner who won election to Congress as a Democrat.

In summing up his own case, Crist, who represents the St. Petersburg area in Congress, referred to his lead in fundraising and most polls (although Fried says she has an internal poll suggesting a tightening race).

“Sadly, I have to say you just heard the voice of desperation. Unfortunately for Nikki, she’s losing this campaign. And that’s unfortunate. But you want somebody to win and who can win in November,” Crist said.

Abortion proved a major bone of contention. Fried attacked Crist repeatedly as squishy on the issue, noting that three “radical extremist” justices he placed on the Florida Supreme Court belong to the conservative wing that may be poised to overturn a 1989 precedent upholding abortion rights under the state Constitution’s privacy clause.

“This question is the greatest difference between myself, Charlie, and Ron. I have been pro-choice my entire life. I have made sure that I’ve stood on the side of women. Charlie cannot say the same thing,” Fried said.

“So, you want to know why our right to privacy is going to be overturned here in the state of Florida? It’s because of decisions Charlie made when he was governor,” she continued. “This is your legacy. When women die here in the state of Florida, that is on you, and you will have to live with that every single day.”

Crist insisted he has a pro-choice record, even vetoing an anti-abortion bill as governor, and enjoys 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL.

‘One of the greatest threats’

“This is one of the greatest threats to our modern society in over 50 years. And it comes out of disrespect for women. DeSantis does not respect women, doesn’t want them to have their right to choose about their body, about their health. That’s absurd. I will fight for it tooth and nail every single day,” he said.

Fried, her relative youth on full display against the more seasoned Crist, needled him, noting that she grew up with a Republican father. “That’s why being up here debating a Republican is nothing new to me,” she said. Crist didn’t seem particularly perturbed.

Crist did warn her against that strategy.

“We’re in a Democratic primary but both of us want to unseat Gov. DeSantis. If we’re going to be able to do that, we have to work together and stop tearing down your fellow Democrats and do what’s right to win this election in November,” he said.

“I’ll pledge to you: If you win the primary, I’ll endorse you that night. I hope you will do the same for me now,” he added.

Fried didn’t take Crist up on the offer, deflecting to an attack on DeSantis for his initiatives against Black Lives Matter protesters; voting and LGBTQ rights; and local governments’, school boards’, and private industry’s anti-COVID masking and vaccination policies.

“That is not democracy. That’s fascism,” she said. At another point, she called DeSantis “a dictator.”

“Look what he did right here down in South Florida, going after the cruise line industry because they dared to take care of you, the passengers. And then, when Disney exercised their freedom of speech, he went after them, too. Who’s next? You?

‘I stand up against the bully’

“That’s why I stand up against the bully every single day, and I have been doing it for three and a half years. That’s what it means to have a fighter in this election, and a fighter in this ring.

“And, yes, Charlie and I might agree on some policies. But, at the end of the day, it matters who we vote for in this primary on who can beat Ron DeSantis. If we vote for Charlie, we’re going to see Ron DeSantis running for president because he’ll get another term. If you vote for me in this primary, you will have a fighter and we will end Ron DeSantis’ career.”

In reply, Crist noted his fundraising and polling leads plus endorsements from influential party members and unions including the AFL-CIO.

“I’m very confident in our opportunity to win this election. Confident in the primary but not complacent. And the same way about taking on Ron DeSantis — I’m polling ahead of him today,” Crist said.

He didn’t specify which poll shows that but FiveThirtyEight projects that DeSantis could grab 54.2 percent of the November vote against 42.5 percent for Crist. The projection didn’t factor in Fried.

Crist does lead Fried in fundraising, having nearly $6.9 million on hand in his campaign and Friends of Charlie Crist accounts compared to nearly $3.9 million in Fried’s campaign and Florida Consumers First accounts.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has nearly $129 million in his combined campaign and Friends of Ron DeSantis accounts, much of it raised out of state.

‘He’s anti-democracy’

Crist agreed with Fried’s take on DeSantis, targeting legislation the governor signed making it harder to cast votes by mail, which disadvantaged groups and the elderly embraced in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

“He is anti-democracy. There’s no question about it. This governor doesn’t want our fellow Floridians to vote,” he said.

“I’m a Democrat running to protect democracy. He’s an autocrat running to become dictator.”

He accused the governor of harming Florida in pursuit of his ambitions.

“Florida is not a steppingstone. We are a special place, the most beautiful place in the world to live,” Crist said.

This story was originally published by Florida Phoenix. Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.