After eight years representing parts of Southwest Florida in the state House of Representatives, state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, is trying to make the move to the Florida Cabinet as the state’s next agriculture commissioner.
Speaking with Florida Daily, Caldwell said he will bring his commitment to the Constitution with him to the Cabinet if elected.
“My fidelity to the Constitution has been consistent across the board,” Caldwell said. “It’s not just about your right to self defense. Ultimately, I am running to make government obedient to the Constitution.”
While much has been made by the press and his campaign about Caldwell’s support for the Second Amendment, the Republican nominee insisted he is a staunch defender of the entire Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, adding that he took some heat for it during his time in the Legislature. Caldwell said he looks back on those eight years with pride, especially the way he focused on the environment.
“Water supply is a fundamental building block, not just for agriculture, but for our urban growth which is going to continue to increase over the next several decades,” he said.
Caldwell attempted to define some differences between himself and Democratic opponent Nikki Fried who, he insisted, talks a lot about conservation while he has acted.
“Multiple Everglades bills, multiple bills dealing with water quality and water supply, multiple bills dealing with land conservation,” Caldwell noted. “You can certainly expect that that will be a top focus of mine as commissioner.”
The Agriculture Department was rocked by scandal this year when a report was uncovered showing an employee did not properly complete all steps of background checks for more than 300 people seeking a concealed weapon permit from 2013-2014. The employee involved was fired. Caldwell feels the problem has been resolved, but he isn’t taking any chances, promising a full review if elected.
“I’m committed to making sure that if you don’t deserve a license, you don’t get one, and if you are not doing your job as an employee, you are going to get fired. That really is what it boils down to,” Caldwell told Florida Daily.
Caldwell said, if elected, he will keep the “Fresh From Florida” advertising program will stay with some changes. He explained to Florida Daily that consumer tastes have evolved radically since the 80’s and 90’s when drinking a glass of orange juice every morning was the norm and any ad campaign needs to adapt.
“It has really altered the landscape, particularly for a state like ours that specializes in fresh fruits and vegetables and is now competing in a very difficult table with Mexico and the baked in advantages they have,” Caldwell said. “Hopefully we can continue to address those but I certainly think marketing plays a role in that. I think we need to continue to commit to doing that and it elevates Florida rightfully so as the premier place in the world for fresh fruits and vegetables in our winter time production particularly.”
What Caldwell does not want to do is use general sales tax state revenue to fund the program, something that has been done in the past.
“I think it should come from the sources it has traditionally, which is marking orders directly on the fruits and vegetables themselves at the wholesale level. That way the money is being invested directly to the benefit of those crops,” he told Florida Daily.
Caldwell said he is open to closing some state parks, saying he thinks the real value in Florida’s park system comes from the parks where guests want to go and interact with nature, be it the beach, inland waters or others. He believes the state owns millions of acres of park land which people have no desire to visit. Caldwell wants those lands moved over to the Forestry Division and the rangers that work them reassigned to the parks people visit, insisting this will save the state government money and lead to better service.
Caldwell said the average Floridian in the city or suburb might not understand just how wide ranging the department’s responsibilities are. He cited oil changes, auto repair, security guards, pest control, irrigation, pawn shops, surveyors and amusement parks safety as issues that fall under its jurisdiction.
“Pretty much if you work outside or wash your hands, you are likely housed at the department,” he said.
Calling it the “Commissioner of Dirty Jobs” like the “Mike Rose Show” on the Discovery Channel, Caldwell said consumer protection will remain important and get ramped up in one area right away.
“Having the state so full of seniors makes us uniquely positioned to focus on that kind of fraud,” he said. “People that are using telemarketing scams to fraudulently rip off seniors and their savings accounts. It really comes down to prosecution. Like any financial crime, the con artist is always looking for a new angle. We have got to play catch up to it.”
Caldwell also promised to try and stay ahead of con artists trying to get personal info from the back end of the system, working with retailers to help protect their data, not just where customers scan their cards at the registers, but at company data centers as well.
Reach Mike Synan at Mike.Synan@floridadaily.com.