Change is afoot in the heart of Big Sugar country

It could take up to a week before we know whether Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick or Dale Holness prevailed in the Democratic primary in Florida’s 20th District.

But while we don’t yet know who won, we do know who lost:

Big Sugar.

Cherfilus-McCormick was one of six Democratic candidates in the primary to tell VoteWater they wouldn’t accept campaign cash from Florida’s powerful sugar industry. If she wins, she’ll be among the few members of Congress from Florida who have refused money from Big Sugar — the cabal of sugar barons who have maintained a stranglehold on Florida politics and politicians for generations.

During the campaign, Cherfilus-McCormick told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper she opposed burning sugarcane fields before harvest and supported congressional hearings on the environmental and health impacts of the controversial practice, which blankets communities in the Glades region with harmful smoke and ash.

She was even bolder in 2020, when she told the VoteWater team that “All industries that take part in practices that jeopardize human health through pollution must be regulated and fined. This includes Big sugar, who has silenced legislators by donating large amounts to their campaigns.”

Even if Cherfilus-McCormick ultimately comes in second, there were signs everywhere Tuesday night that sugar’s stranglehold is weakening.

Holness supported the industry during the campaign but called for robust monitoring of air quality in the Glades region, “and if conditions warrant, we should change our harvesting practices.”

Barbara Sharief, who finished third in the primary, said she backs a comprehensive study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on the effects of sugarcane burning while she worked with the industry to develop alternatives.

Two candidates who told VoteWater they would accept sugar money, Perry Thurston and Bobby Dubose, finished fourth and fifth.

The most outspoken anti-Big Sugar candidate in the race, former state Rep. Omari Hardy, finished sixth overall; but in Palm Beach County, where sugar cane fields dominate the western portion of the district, he came in third — evidence his criticisms of the industry resonated with voters.

Tuesday’s vote was proof that Floridians are souring on the economic, health and environmental damage inflicted by Big Sugar — and they’re ready for change.