Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson says he is gauging support around the state and will likely decide “in the next couple of months” on whether he will run in 2022 for agriculture commissioner.

What You Need To Know

  • Simpson is an egg farmer from eastern Pasco County

  • He was first elected to the state Senate in 2012 as a Republican

  • He’ll continue to serve as Senate President through the 2022 legislative session

“My family members have been very supportive of me in the Florida Senate,” Simpson told Spectrum News on Friday after addressing the Tampa Tiger Bay Club at The Cuban Club in Ybor City. “We’re working around the state to make sure that we would have the support for such a run, and we’ll make a decision on that in the next couple of months, probably.”

The egg farmer from eastern Pasco County has become one of the most powerful men in state government since he assumed the office as the Republican Majority Leader of the Florida Senate last November. He’s already been endorsed for agriculture commissioner by none other than Donald Trump, now a full-time Florida man. And he’d likely be a front-runner for the position, considering that Democratic incumbent Nikki Fried is leaving the seat for a gubernatorial run in 2022, and the GOP’s candidate for agriculture commissioner in 2018, Matt Caldwell, announced this week that he won’t seek another run for the position next year.

Spectrum News asked Simpson about a number of issues going on in Florida after his appearance in front of the Tiger Bay crowd, such as the situation with the now closed Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County.

State lawmakers agreed in May to spend $100 million to begin cleaning up and closing the facility following a breach at the plant that unleashed hundreds of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, spawning algae blooms and possibly exacerbating the red tide situation that is currently plaguing St. Petersburg. Simpson said it wasn't.

“I think that we should celebrate the fact that Piney Point will no longer be an issue five years from now and not just focus on all of the atrocities in the last 20-30 years,” he said. “I’ve been told that there’s been about 23 sites similar to this. And so I’ve said we need to identify those as a state, we need to get a cost associated with fixing those, because we are then going to vigorously go after the people who did these things.”

On the tragedy at Surfside and the need to address more rigorous building inspections, he said, “There was a major update in the building code after Andrew in ’92, and then we’ve continuously updated those building codes since. We clearly are going to have all of the information 3-4 months from now, exactly what actually happened at Surfside, and we will address those issues. One of the points that I’ve made with my staff so far is we clearly need to have an inspection process. Now, do you start at 20 years? 15? 30? We’ll let the experts work with us on what that is.”

As protests broke out this week in some of Florida’s biggest cities in support of the Cuban people, some demonstrators blocked public roads, yet few were arrested for that. Some critics of HB 1, the “anti-riot” bill, have questioned why those protesters weren’t cited. Simpson, a supporter of the bill, said the legislation was “another tool in their toolbox” for law enforcement, and that what happened this week was a clear example of local police using their discretion to defuse those situations.

In his address to the audience at the Cuban Club, Simpson discussed the problems with the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity website, which led to massive problems last year when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a deluge of unemployment claims. He said that the Legislature put $150 million into the current budget to revamp the unemployment system, and that it will take between 18 months and two years to fully implement the system.

“Two years from now you’ll have a completely updated, cloud-based system which is much more user-friendly” (he later said the timetable might be sooner).

During the Q&A, Tampa City Councilman Joe Citro listed a number of laws that the state has “preempted” from the city of Tampa and given to the Legislature to control. It’s been a frequent criticism of local government officials in recent years, particularly from Democrats.

“Does Tallahassee not think the city of Tampa can govern itself?” Citro asked, eliciting cheers from the audience.

“It’s pretty clear that this must be the case,” Simpson said sarcastically, adding that when local governments create “too restrictive” policies, “we’re going to do what we have to do to make sure that Florida is open for business.”

And when asked by adult club entrepreneur and progressive activist Joe Redner how much campaign cash he receives from the agriculture community (Redner called it “Big Ag”), Simpson answered the question directly.“A lot,” he responded. “You’re going to be surprised, but if you’re a farmer in the Legislature, a lot of other farmers will support you. So a bunch.”