Backroom Briefing: Florida Democrats look to insurance and abortion

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Property insurance. by designer481 via iStock for WMNF News.

Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida

By Jim Turner ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Democrats contend Tuesday’s special-election victory in the Central Florida battleground House District 35 is a model for future elections as they try to make inroads against Republicans.

Orlando Democrat Tom Keen won a formerly Republican seat by focusing on property insurance and abortion rights in reaching out to independent voters and moderate Republicans.

“Now, we take this model, and we make sure that the rest of our party chairs at the local level, our candidates, understand what worked and what didn’t work,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried said in a conference call Wednesday with reporters. “And, so, we’re going to be diving in, figuring out where we can improve on our numbers last night (Tuesday). Where we can make sure that we are recruiting candidates that understand the work that needs to be done.”

District 35, which is in Orange and Osceola counties, is nearly evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. It became open last summer when then-Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, was named president of South Florida State College.

Republicans have argued Keen’s win over Republican Erika Booth wasn’t that surprising as the district went for President Joe Biden by 5 percentage points in 2020.

But Keen said issues swung voters.

“We heard from residents about the crisis with property insurance, and I think that resonated, especially with Republicans as well as NPA (no party affiliation voters),” Keen said. “Again, it’s a bipartisan issue that hasn’t been addressed by the Florida Legislature at all. And we need to get this crisis solved.”

Fried said the House special election is a step toward “flipping” the Legislature to Democrats and that the outcome wasn’t a “fluke.” But she also expressed a more realistic view in calling the contest “a first step in chipping away at the supermajority in the Republican Legislature.”


With lawmakers considering a proposed ban on “cultivated meat,” a main ingredient in the discussion is protecting Florida’s cattle industry.

“I think we have to take an aggressive stance. Here in the state of Florida, our beef production and our standard agriculture footprint isn’t an issue. I think this is a step towards making sure we’re doing what we believe is correct for our economy now and in the future,” Senate Agriculture Chair Jay Collins, R-Tampa, said during a meeting of the Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.

“And I think you’re stepping into some really kind of odd ethics in this space as well. Not that that’s the primary focus on this,” Collins added. “But the Florida market, the cattle industry, the beef industry is very strong. We’re going to continue to grow that.”

The proposal, part of a wide-ranging Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bill, targets the process of taking a small number of cultured cells from living animals and growing them in controlled settings to make food.

Collins said that while “I am an advocate of the free market,” he said the issue can be revisited if there is “more science, more study” conducted.

Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson last week defended the proposed ban during an appearance on the News Service of Florida podcast “Deeper Dive With Dara Kam.”

“Other states are already looking at it and not banning it, but actually a state like California is actually trying to implement it and the thought behind that is, ‘You get rid of your cattle industry,’” Simpson claimed.

But Arye Elfenbein, a cardiologist and molecular biologist who in 2016 helped form a San Francisco-based company focused on lab-grown seafood, defended the process before the Senate committee.

“Banning cultivated meat, when there just is less and less seafood, less and less fish in the oceans today, where does that leave us in terms of our ability to access this nutritious source of protein?” Elfenbein said. “This is something that is somewhat baffling to us in terms of why such an anti-capitalist stance would be taken with a bill like this.”


Simpson hasn’t been shy about his displeasure that Gov. Ron DeSantis last year vetoed $100 million for a program that keeps swaths of rural land from commercial and residential development.

Simpson views the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program as a way for the state to limit development, build up a wildlife corridor and continue ranching and farming. The program buys conservation easements, which allow landowners to continue using their property while shielding it from development.

Simpson thinks DeSantis would probably want a do-over on the veto after spending months campaigning for president in agriculture-rich Iowa.

“Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it,” Simpson said on the “Deeper Dive with Dara Kam” podcast. “That (veto) was a direct shot at farmers. But I think that the governor is now supportive of this idea. I think he’s been through the Midwest enough to realize that farmers are an important part of national-security issues and national security. And you can’t win about 20 states without agriculture in your corner.”

Simpson made his karma comment before DeSantis finished in a distant second place to former President Donald Trump in Monday’s Iowa Republican caucus.

Asked on Tuesday about the veto and the caucus outcome, Simpson smiled before replying, “I think that President Trump won the primary last night. I think that’s how that turned out.”

DeSantis in his proposed fiscal year 2024-2025 budget recommended $100 million for the Rural and Family Lands program. Simpson has asked for $300 million. Lawmakers will make a decision in the coming weeks as they negotiate a budget.


“The corporate media remains the enemy of this republic.” — DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern (@JeremyRedernFL), echoing members of the governor’s presidential campaign staff after national media quickly projected that Trump had won the Iowa caucuses.

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