Agriculture commissioner candidates Democrat Naomi Blemur (left) and Republican Wilton Simpson (right)Agriculture commissioner candidates Democrat Naomi Blemur (left) and Republican Wilton Simpson (right)
Agriculture commissioner candidates Democrat Naomi Blemur (left) and Republican Wilton Simpson (right)

Agriculture commissioner race: Simpson vs. Blemur

Published on October 14, 2022 at 1:21 pm

One of Florida’s most-powerful lawmakers and a North Miami Democrat touting a “grassroots” campaign are competing in the Nov. 8 election to become state agriculture commissioner.

Outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican and egg farmer, has more name recognition, political connections and funding as he goes up against Naomi Blemur, the first Haitian-American to be a major-party candidate for a Cabinet seat.

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But with the contest an undercard to races for governor and a U.S. Senate seat, Simpson said he isn’t taking the contest for granted. In addition to serving as one of three statewide elected Cabinet members, the agriculture commissioner runs the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a sprawling agency that oversees issues involving farmers and ranchers, manages public lands, inspects amusement-park rides, ensures food-safety and school-lunch programs and oversees concealed-weapons licenses.

“I think that these (Cabinet) races will ultimately be close. And when I say close, they can be three to five points away. But in Florida, that’s a landslide compared to four years ago,” Simpson said, also alluding to races this year for attorney general and state chief financial officer.

Blemur, a Miami native, sees her campaign as a “grassroots” effort. She’s received little Democratic Party support after emerging from a three-candidate primary where some of her endorsements were rescinded over past social-media comments opposing abortion and viewed as homophobic.

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Asked about the endorsement controversy, Blemur noted that nearly 700,000 Democrats, more than half of those participating in the primary, voted for her.

“I believe what the people of the state of Florida want to know is whether or not Naomi Blemur is a candidate that’s going to fight for everybody. And the answer to that is yes,” she said.

While Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis are running for re-election, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried decided to run this year for governor instead of seeking another term on the Cabinet. Fried lost an Aug. 23 Democratic primary to Charlie Crist.

As with the other Cabinet races, debates have not been scheduled in the agriculture-commissioner contest and there is scant public polling. Experts say the outcome likely will be affected by the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

“There is only so much space for political information consumption for most people,” Florida Atlantic University political-science professor Kevin Wagner said. “It’s hard to break out when there are other high-profile races going on at the same time.”

Susan MacManus, a retired political-science professor at the University of South Florida, indicated the down-ballot nature of the contest might make it tougher for the lightly funded Blemur.

“Early on, Florida Democrats were criticized for not recruiting stronger candidates for these races,” MacManus said. “The party’s own funding difficulties have again prompted them to put most of their emphasis on the governor and U.S. Senate races.”

Blemur has raised about $14,500 since the Aug. 23 primary and had about $3,000 on hand entering late-September. She had raised a total of $66,185 and loaned $12,500 to her campaign.

At the same time, Simpson had $1.6 million on hand in his campaign account and more than $13.1 million at his disposal through four political committees — Jobs for Florida, Friends of Wilton Simpson, Florida Green PAC and Future Florida.

Endorsed by President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Simpson, 56, was first elected to the Senate in 2012 and has served the past two years as Senate president.

One of the wealthiest members of the Legislature, with a net worth of $22.5 million at the end of 2021, Simpson’s business interests include an egg farm, an environmental-safety company and company that owns IHOP restaurants in Florida.

While in the Senate, Simpson pushed for water storage north of Lake Okeechobee and the state’s “Right to Farm” law, designed to expand legal protections for farmers. Simpson also was behind a controversial water measure this year tied to Everglades restoration. DeSantis vetoed the measure, even after changes were made to address criticism.

Simpson said he’d use the Cabinet position to bring a “loud voice, where we don’t go along to get along.”

Blemur, 43, describes herself as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, a minister, community leader, author, wife and mother.

Among her goals are guaranteeing that children in public schools who get free breakfast or free lunch receive nutritional meals, using her experience as a banker to expand access to capital for farmers and ensuring Black and brown people have a “fair shot” at entering the state’s hemp industry.

While supporting Crist over DeSantis in the governor’s race, Blemur said she would work with whoever wins the November election.

“No matter who it is, I am going to put my best foot forward every single day, and I’m going to ensure that I work and partner with this individual,” Blemur said. “I do not believe that we have to be at each other’s throats.”

Blemur also wants to emphasize the role Cabinet members play as the state Board of Executive Clemency.

Her husband Anis Blemur in 2019 was handed a seven-year federal sentence for his role in a real estate-related wire fraud and money laundering scheme.

“While my husband serves his time and pays his debt to society, I made the decision that I’m going to serve the people.,” Blemur said.

Neither Blemur nor Simpson are looking to make immediate wholesale changes at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Among the areas they diverge is the concealed-weapons licensing program.

“We’re going to make sure that all law-abiding citizens can get a concealed carry license as quickly as possible,” said Simpson, who has drawn criticism from some Second Amendment advocates for not passing measures that would eliminate the need for the concealed-weapons license program.

“It is our intention to as quickly as possible, to make sure that we are turning those conceal carriers out as quickly as possible,” Simpson said.

Blemur said she would maintain Fried’s policies. Fried has sometimes clashed with the National Rifle Association about the program.

“The current commissioner has done a great job of ensuring that those who apply for the license, who are qualified to get it, get it quickly. And those that do not qualify get turned down,” Blemur said. “I will continue in those steps to ensure that we give licenses to individuals who understand the responsibility of having that license.”

Both advocate for farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Simpson said that while sugar farmers have been “villainized” for the past four to five decades, 80% of the winter vegetables come from the area where “those farmers are all using best-management practices. They’ve reduced nutrient loads in and around their systems by 70, 80%.”

Blemur, who said her grandmother initially found work picking tomatoes in Immokalee after arriving in Florida in the 1980s, would like to reach a long-term plan supported by the sugar industry and local residents that eventually “gets away” from sugar cane burning.

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