TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried prides herself on having grit, and it's a good thing, too. There were a lot of questions about how a woman -- who has never set foot in the agriculture ring -- could run the cabinet agency in charge of its success.
"I don't have a cowboy hat and boots like my predecessors," she said, "but what I do have is passion. And I've been a compassionate and passionate advocate my entire life for issues and causes that mean something to me and this is just no different."
Somehow, Fried has always been able to make people see it from her side. Her first campaign was back in 8th grade. It was all on the line for vice mayor of her suburban Miami middle school.
"I had a slogan 'You Have a Friend in Fried' and I gave out friendship bracelets back when that was the thing," she said laughing. Her 10th birthday wish was to see the White House and she did. From there, the love of leadership never left.
It was one successful campaign after another -- always in a leadership position. Student government president, student body president, church youth groups, the prestigious Florida Blue Key and ultimately the University of Florida Hall of Fame.
After college, Fried went to law school, then on to become a public defender. That's where she came across a problem that would pave the way for her political future.
"I saw in 95 percent of police reports the first line was always, 'The smell of cannabis was detected and probable cause came after,' and I would just get so frustrated that it would then be my client who had to say we had nothing," said Fried.
She was on the front lines of the slow shift to legalizing marijuana in Florida, first lobbying for low THC medicinal use. In 2014, she got Charlotte's Web through the legislature. It was a big legislative season all around for Fried.
"One of my favorite pieces of legislation which actually hangs on my wall," she said smiling and pointing to a wall in her Tallahassee office filled with more personal memories. "It was a resolution we got passed in 2014 that gave a right to counsel for those children in foster care that have special needs, any kids on psychotropic drugs, any victims of sex trafficking, any mental and physical disability at all now have a right to counsel, an attorney representing them in court."
It mattered, and it marked the moment of meaningful change for Fried.
She's the first Democrat in 20 years to be agriculture commissioner and the sole Democrat in statewide office, but that was sort of a moot point for her. Early student politics never involved picking a party.
In fact, she and Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody have known each other a long time. They go all the way back to their college days at the University of Florida.
"We are the younger generation stepping up and coming into our own," she said. "We've had our careers."
Now, they are Florida Cabinet members. Two women, which is historic. With this lifelong dedication to public service come a few opportunities to silence the critics.
In 2018, Fried took a big hit when Wells Fargo and BB&T pulled their campaign money over her support of medical marijuana, but winning the election put her in a unique position. She's not just the agriculture chief. She's also the head of consumer services -- and that makes her the de facto boss of big banks in Florida. So, now she makes the rules.
Right now, the SAFE Banking Bill is moving through Congress, which would change the way money changes hands in the cannabis industry and those connected to it.
"I actually thanked BB&T in my acceptance speech after the primary because they really, by kicking me out of the bank for taking political contributions from the industry, elevated this issue. The best revenge is success," she said with a sly smile.
To be clear, the Department of Agriculture does not regulate medical marijuana in the state. That's the Department of Health. However, there is increasing collaboration between the two.
In the meantime, she has plenty on her plate. Right now, she working on distributing $380 million for farmers hit by Hurricane Michael, keeping red tide contained, concealed weapons permit reforms, and boosting the states hemp crops and exports.
Her newest development may be the happiest of all -- she's newly engaged.
"This new generation of women are finding that the work-life balance is doable and are, in my mind, able to have it all," she said, smiling a little bigger this time.