How Democrat Nikki Fried’s campaign to be Florida’s next governor could get sidetracked by her relationship with Matt Gaetz

Summary List PlacementWhen insurgents attacked the US Capitol on January 6, the first person who checked in on Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz wasn’t a fellow conservative.
Instead, it was Nikki Fried, a Democrat and Florida’s agriculture commissioner, who announced Tuesday that she’s running for governor and hopes to unseat Ron DeSantis, a Republican. 
Fried — whose Twitter feed has been largely devoted to attacking DeSantis and the GOP — has been noticeably less strident in her criticisms of Gaetz lately, even as the congressman is the subject of a federal sex-trafficking investigation and congressional ethics inquiry.
The likely reason is that Fried and Gaetz are pals. 
Their friendship dates back at least to Fried’s time as a medical-marijuana lobbyist in Tallahassee, Florida, when Gaetz was serving in the Florida House, according to six Florida political operatives who spoke with Insider on condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships. 
Fried’s ties to Gaetz could complicate her political future, according to Florida insiders. Now that she’s officially running and faces a crowded Democratic primary field, Fried’s relationship with Gaetz and some of his Republican allies could quickly become prime fodder for attacks, including from fellow Democrats. US Rep. Charlie Crist, himself a former governor, announced in early May that he was running to unseat DeSantis.
Fried announced her gubernatorial run on June 1. “It’s time to break the rigged, corrupt system in Florida,” she wrote on Twitter. 



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It’s time to break the rigged, corrupt system in Florida with #SomethingNew.That’s why I’m running for Governor.Join us at https://t.co/pSDjoC7HWW. pic.twitter.com/Vzb1MnBuSB — Nikki Fried (@NikkiFried) June 1, 2021

 
Read more: We spoke with 21 of Matt Gaetz’s high-school classmates. Some say they could have predicted the congressman’s sex scandal.
Since 2017, Democrats have loathed Gaetz for his loyalty to former President Donald Trump. The Florida congressman is even more politically polarizing now that he’s facing a federal investigation into sex-trafficking allegations, according to The New York Times. Gaetz denies that he’s done anything illegal.
“Anybody who has ambitions for higher office or even to be reelected, which Nikki clearly does, would be out of their mind if they didn’t distance themselves from Matt Gaetz,” Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist who’s now an independent, said. 
He said he wasn’t aware of the specifics of Fried’s relationship with Gaetz. 
“Any time you’re a politician seeking to run for higher office, and you have to explain at length how you happen to know somebody and what your relationship is, you’d be much better off if you didn’t,” Stipanovich said.
Neither Fried’s office nor Gaetz’s office responded to a request for comment about their relationship. 
Hangouts in Tallahassee and Trump hotel
During the January 6 siege on the Capitol, Fried “was the first to text me to ask if I was OK,” Gaetz wrote on Twitter a few days after the riot. Gaetz tweeted about the exchange after he was criticized on social media for being on his phone during the attack.

.@nikkifried She was the first to text me to ask if I was OK. I told her I was. https://t.co/ElFzWYscwL — Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) January 10, 2021

Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and the only statewide elected Democrat, took heat on Twitter after that. 
She then distanced herself from Gaetz: “I tried to reach all of our fl members of Congress. Every life is precious. We need to work together to deescalate the violence and work on healing our country,” she said.

I tried to reach all of our fl members of Congress. Every life is precious. We need to work together to deescalate the violence and work on healing our country. — Nikki Fried (@nikkifried) January 10, 2021

Insider sent inquiries to every member of the Florida congressional delegation about whether they’d heard from Fried after the attack. Spokespeople for Democratic Reps. Lois Frankel and Stephanie Murphy confirmed through their spokespeople that Fried’s office had checked in with them after the siege. Others didn’t respond or declined to comment.
Fried and Gaetz frequently hung out together at the now closed 101 Restaurant in Tallahassee, where Gaetz and other Florida legislators often spent time during the legislative session, multiple people told Insider. 
Gaetz served in the Florida House from 2010 to 2016. 
“They certainly were friends,” a Tallahassee Republican who has worked closely with Gaetz said. “I certainly saw them out together,” that person added, saying that it was common for Florida lobbyists to make friends on both sides of the aisle as they try to advance their agendas.  
More recently, Gaetz and Fried were spotted hanging out in December 2019 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, according to a Republican political operative who saw them together. 
Gaetz sat on couches near the bar in the hotel lobby talking to a crowd that included Fried and Chris Dorworth, another former state legislator who had shared a three-bedroom condo with Gaetz in Tallahassee, the GOP operative said.
Dorworth, 44, and Fried, 43, both attended the University of Florida and have been friends since their college days, two Florida political insiders said. 
Some Florida Democrats are disappointed that Fried hasn’t sought more distance herself from Gaetz in light of his recent controversies.
“Both Nikki Fried and Ron DeSantis need to reckon with their ties to Gaetz, but it’s surprising that Fried has yet to fully ‘cancel’ her friendship with Gaetz,” a Florida Democratic strategist said.

‘She’s part of the crew’
Given Fried’s longtime friendship with Gaetz and his inner circle, Florida insiders wonder why her name hasn’t surfaced more prominently in recent media reports about Gaetz and his ties to the marijuana industry in Florida. 
Gaetz was instrumental to the effort to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, while Fried was one of the state’s most prominent medical-marijuana lobbyists. 
The federal investigation surrounding allegations of sex trafficking by Gaetz and other Florida politicians has expanded to include a review of Gaetz’s connections to the medical-marijuana sector when he was in the US Congress and in the Florida House, The Associated Press reported. 
A central piece of the investigation, according to the AP, is a 2018 vacation to the Bahamas where Gaetz was joined by the former Florida legislator Halsey Beshears and Jason Pirozzolo, a hand surgeon and marijuana entrepreneur.  
Socially, Fried was “in that crew,” one Florida political insider who knows Gaetz and Fried said. Florida politicos have been wondering why her friendship with Gaetz and his inner circle — including Dorworth, Beshears, and Pirozzolo — hasn’t been mentioned more frequently, that person said. 
That’s not to imply that she did anything wrong, that person added, but “everybody on the inside knows the reason why she has not criticized them is because she’s part of the crew.”

Challenging DeSantis
Florida reporters and political insiders took note when Fried stayed quiet on the Gaetz scandal for nearly a month after the news broke. 
Fried isn’t shy about bashing her GOP opponents on Twitter, where her feed includes a steady stream of DeSantis criticism. In a series of tweets on Friday, she criticized DeSantis’ record as Florida’s governor and accused him of taking credit for things President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress had done. 
Weeks after news of the Gaetz scandal broke, the Tampa Bay Times reached out to Fried’s office for a reaction. The newspaper published a statement on May 1 from a Fried spokesperson saying that she was “saddened, shocked, and disturbed by the serious allegations detailed in reports.” 
But Fried stopped well short of what many fellow Democrats and even some Republicans have done: call on Gaetz to resign. On May 4, she urged federal investigators to “come to a decision” about the Gaetz investigation or “move on.” 
Read more: Matt Gaetz’s Florida sex game included a ‘Harry Potter’ challenge and ‘extra points’ for sleeping in sorority houses, a female Republican tells Insider
“I certainly hope they are not true on behalf of the potential victims of this case, and certainly hope the FBI and DOJ either come to a decision or make further findings, or it is time for people of our country and our state to move on and get on with the business of governing,” she said, according to Politico. 
Following those comments, Orlando Weekly ran a story calling Fried an “unlikely ally” of Gaetz. 
Even as Fried urged investigators to hurry up, she downplayed her friendship with Gaetz in the Politico interview. 
“Obviously, we all know each other,” she told reporters of Gaetz. “You walk these halls long enough, and you are involved, of course, you have lots of interactions with people. As you all know, Congressman Gaetz and I have worked a lot of policy together, including the marijuana industry.”
Fried and Gaetz have occasionally sparred on Twitter, but their recent back-and-forths haven’t included the vitriol that they’re both known for on social media. 
After a March 2020 Twitter debate about the merits of a statewide stay-at-home order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaetz wrote: “It should be noted that Nikki is one of my close personal friends and told me I could shelter at her place if a Walmart parking lot was my only other option.” 

I got out. Don’t put Florida on quarantine Nikki! (It should be noted that Nikki is one of my close personal friends and told me I could shelter at her place if a Walmart parking lot was my only other option) — Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) March 21, 2020

At the time, Gaetz was under self-quarantine after interacting with someone who had been exposed to the coronavirus.  
Fried has also engaged on social media with Joel Greenberg, a former Florida tax collector and Gaetz friend who’s at the center of the sex scandal engulfing Gaetz. 
Read more: Gaetz associate Joel Greenberg will plead guilty to 6 felony counts including sex-trafficking, wire fraud, identity theft, stalking, and conspiracy
Greenberg tweeted a picture of Fried’s image on a gas pump in 2019, writing, “Oh hey there @nikkifried. Making gas pumps more pleasant since ’19.” Fried responded with an eyeballs emoji. 

👀 — Nikki Fried (@nikkifried) May 3, 2019

And Fried tagged Dorworth, along with several other Florida politicians, in a 2019 tweet about a petition to save the Swamp restaurant in Gainesville, Florida. 

@AshleyMoodyFL @ChrisDorworth @RepBobbyDuBose @ungerfamily @JamalSowell @cbonarrigo @DeanCannon @Jyapo @CarmodyJr @DaneEagle @TaylorBiehl @gregsteube @RepTedYoho @BlaiseIngoglia @microgator @jasonbrodeur @KeithPerryFL @joe — Nikki Fried (@nikkifried) April 18, 2019

Dorworth resigned from the influential Florida law firm Ballard Partners last month after The New York Times reported on allegations that Dorworth and Gaetz discussed the possibility of running a third-party candidate in a state Senate race in 2020 to assist a Gaetz associate. 
Dorworth told The Times he did not recall a conversation with Gaetz about running a third-party candidate but that “there would be nothing illegal about it if we had,” as long as they didn’t pay that person to run for office.
This article was originally published on May 6, 2021, and since updated to reflect new developments.
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