Election 2022: Worm farmer battles egg farmer in GOP agriculture commissioner race

Orlando Sentinel/TNS
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Wilton Simpson, a multimillionaire egg farmer and state senator from Trilby heavily favored to become the next Florida agriculture commissioner, has a millionaire worm farmer running against him in the Republican primary.

Also, the three Democrats who are vying for their party nomination are long shots to defeat Simpson, with little money or name recognition needed for a state Cabinet position. Whoever wins the Aug. 23 primary will face the Republican nominee.

Simpson, a fifth-generation Floridian who calls himself a “common sense conservative,” has been endorsed by President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis. He also has the backing of major business groups and 59 of the state’s 67 county sheriffs.

Simpson, 56, has raised more than $2 million in his regular campaign account through July 8 and has spent $230,000. He also has four political committees with a combined $39 million in them. And a mysterious committee that won’t disclose its donors has spent more than $2 million on TV ads supporting his candidacy.

Term limits prevent him from running again in the Senate, where he’s served since 2012. He said he’s running for agriculture commissioner because he wants “every Floridian to have access to the same opportunities” he’s had to live the American dream.

One of his biggest accomplishments is getting the 2021 Right to Farm bill passed, which makes it difficult to file what the law calls “nuisance” suits against farmers.

‘I wanted to be a player’

This is the first political campaign for James Shaw, 62, an organic farmer who operated Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, for decades before turning the farm over to his son and moving to Florida. He said he “got political” after the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and believes Trump was the actual winner.

“It opened up my eyes to the political realm, and I wanted to be a player,” Shaw said. He’s only raised about $49,000, most of it his own money, and he knows faces long odds. He lists his personal net worth at $4.5 million.

Shaw’s platform includes protecting Florida’s food source, protecting its water supply and supporting gun rights.

“I am passionate about protecting Florida from far left agendas that are capable of destroying our state if implemented,” said Shaw, whose campaign adviser and treasurer is Maria Pycha. She was conservative radio host Dan Bongino’s manager when he ran for Congress.

In contrast to Simpson’s long family tenure, Shaw said he’s lived in Florida for the past 12 years and lists an Okeechobee address as his home, which he bought in 2010. He acquired several adjacent properties and owns property in Indian River County, too.

None of them has a homestead exemption, according to real estate records.

Democrats in the running

Naomi Esther Blemur’s Twitter account describes the North Miami resident as a “Believer, Wife, Mother, Entrepreneur, Author, Philanthropist … Life Coach & Womens Advocate.”

A member of the North Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee, Blemur said in a Ballotpedia survey that she’s an advocate for small farmers, clean water, renewable energy, gun reform, and making sure everyone has access to the state’s resources.

Blemur raised $40,000, including a $10,000 loan to herself, and spent $21,000. She’s also filed for matching funds, which requires candidates for Cabinet posts to raise at least $100,000 to qualify.

Jacques Rene “J.R.” Gaillot, a Green Cove Springs resident who works for AT&T, was born in New York and spent part of his childhood in Haiti. He told Ballotpedia he would focus on consumer protection issues such as price gouging and other predatory practices.

Gaillot ran for office twice before and lost. He ran unopposed in the 2012 Democratic primary for the U.S. House District 3 seat but lost to Republican Ted Yoho. Gaillot lost to Tracie Davis in the 2016 Democratic Primary for House District 13.

He’s raised $13,400, including $4,300 in personal loans as of July 15, and spent nearly $9,000.

Also running is Ryan Morales, a Clermont resident who’s been in the entertainment industry most of his life and has a consulting business.

He ran in the 2020 Democratic primary for state House District 32 but lost to Stephanie Dukes. She lost in the general election to Republican incumbent Anthony Sabatini.

Morales raised almost $18,000 since February 2021 when he first announced his candidacy, including more than $3,000 in loans to himself. He spent over $13,000 as of July 15,

He contends he’s the most qualified of the three.

“I know what the position entails, what you can do and not do,” he said. “Focusing on cleaning up the environment is biggest part of my campaign.”

He also runs a small hemp farm in Clermont and favors legalization of marijuana and wants to promote more computer technology and robotics in agriculture.

Complete primary election coverage can be found at OrlandoSentinel.com/election