TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide office in Florida, upbraided Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday for keeping the state Cabinet “in the dark” by failing to convene the panel to discuss the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite Fried’s calls to do so, the outbreak was not specifically included on the agenda Thursday, when the politically powerful Cabinet convened for the first time since February and nearly three months after the governor authorized health officials to declare a public health emergency.
For the most critical months of the COVID-19 outbreak, she told the governor, “this Cabinet has been left in the dark.”
As Florida’s top Democrat, Fried has been especially vocal in demanding transparency in the state’s response to the pandemic.
She’s called on DeSantis to bring key administration officials before the Cabinet, including the state’s surgeon general and other top health officials, to discuss key metrics in the pandemic and how the information was being used to support reopening the state.
“Floridians expect our government to be united, especially during this time of unprecedented challenges to the state we all love,” she said. “But we can’t do that without information and without transparency.”
DeSantis did not respond during the meeting, but a spokesperson has previously accused Fried of politicizing the pandemic.
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican, came to the governor’s defense, saying that the governor has responded appropriately to the crisis.
“You have my support, and I appreciate everything you’ve done to get us through these turbulent waters,” Patronis said during the meeting, which was held over telephone because of the pandemic.
After the meeting, Fried questioned the accuracy of the health data being made public — a charge rejected by the governor and his health officials.
“We have to make sure we have accurate data so people can be making these personal choices,” Fried said.
Thursday’s agenda was mostly mundane, encompassing routine business such as land acquisitions and financing matters. Any discussion about the pandemic was mainly in passing, including a brief mention of social distancing at emergency shelters during hurricanes.
Florida has a unique Cabinet system in which the governor and three independently elected statewide officials make decisions on clemency, the state’s investments, land purchases, utility issues and other matters. As a body, the governor and Cabinet oversee several state agencies, including the Department of Law Enforcement, Department of Highway Safety, Department of Revenue and Department of Motor Vehicles and Highway Safety.
Cabinet meetings are chaired by the governor and its members include Fried, Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, also a Republican.
The governor, not the Cabinet, controls most of the state agencies with direct responsibility over state’s response to the pandemic, including the Department of Health, the Division of Emergency Management.
Like the governor and other members of the Cabinet, Fried is widely believed to have larger political ambitions. As the sole Democrat on the body, she has used her position as a platform to air her differences with the governor and the Cabinet’s Republican members.