By KEITH LAING – THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
While he’s been in the pinstripe world of Washington for several years, Adam Putnam is a fifth generation cattle rancher. He wants to return to his roots, hoping he’ll be elected agriculture commissioner in November. For Scott Maddox, technically running for the same office, the goal is a bit different. The sign outside the office he wants doesn’t just say agriculture commissioner, it also says Office of Consumer Services. And the person running that office shares some executive power with the governor and other members of the Cabinet.
Putnam, a Republican, was a former Agriculture Committee chairman in the state Legislature and says farming is in his DNA, making this the natural job for him.
Maddox, a Democrat – who notes he was raised on a South Florida farm – isn’t as deeply entrenched in the state’s rural heartland, but says he’s running for the right office, too. And he says he and Putnam would actually be similar commissioners when it comes to the state’s farm agenda.
“We agree on every agriculture item,” said Maddox, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “We disagree on Cabinet issues like drilling and the role of the consumer protection. If you look at what the office does, you think of the extension agents that come help you grow things, but they don’t work for the department. They work for the University of Florida.
“Consumer protection is very important because Florida leads the nation in fraud against consumers, ranging from mortgage fraud to targeting seniors,” Maddox said.
Putnam would seem a more traditional candidate for the state’s top agriculture job – and rural voters in most areas have trended to Putnam’s Republican Party in recent decades after a century of being more aligned with the Democratic Party. Putnam said the business of agriculture and its intersection with commerce are things he inherently understands.
“Growing up in a farming family with deep roots in the agriculture community, I have first-hand experience that can’t be taught or bought,” Putnam said as he announced his candidacy. “That perspective, combined with my knowledge of business and government, uniquely qualifies me to best serve our ever changing industry and state.”
Maddox, who is also a former mayor of Tallahassee, has tried to convince voters that Putnam really isn’t any more “farm” than he is – Putnam has been working in the halls of power in the nation’s capital from an extremely young age, having been elected to Congress in 2000 when he was just 26. Before that, he was a Tallahassee insider, having been elected to the state House at just 22. He’s a lifetime politician, like many would say Maddox is, but more removed from everyday Floridians, Maddox argues.
“The choice in this race is between someone who has spent their entire career and adult life in Washington, D.C., and a Floridian who worked in local government,” Maddox said. “I was a very young mayor…Congressman Putnam was a Tom Delay Protégé.”
Not only was he raised on a Homestead farm, Maddox also tries to bolster his agricultural credibility on the campaign trail by pointing out that he’s spent a lot of time helping out on his wife Sha’s family farm – and she’s a former “Miss Georgia Cattleman.”
A poll released recently by the Florida Chamber of Commerce showed Putnam leading Maddox 36 percent to 28 percent, suggesting it could be an uphill climb for the former capital city mayor. The poll, conducted Sept. 27-30, surveyed 800 likely voters by telephone and had a margin of error of 3.46 percent.
But Putnam told supporters on a conference call they shouldn’t read too much into polls showing him ahead.
“That’s one of the most dangerous attitudes you can have in a campaign,” Putnam said. “When I’m traveling in rural areas or agricultural areas, I get a lot of that (confidence). But when I’m traveling in Dade and Broward, I don’t get that at all. It’s very humbling to be traveling around the state and meet people who have never heard of the agriculture commissioner.
“They’ve never heard of Adam Putnam,” he continued. “They may never have heard of any of the other people running. But there’s 18 million people (in Florida). Twelve million are registered (to vote).”
Some were surprised to see Putnam running for a Cabinet post after rising through the ranks to the third-ranking Republican House leadership position in 2006, and becoming a regular proponent of the Republican message on cable TV networks.
But Putnam said when he announced he wanted to return to Florida that he “never caught Potomac Fever” and that he wanted to come back to be commissioner because “agriculture is in my DNA.” Some critics, however, suggested that being in the GOP leadership in the minority wasn’t going to be as easy as when Republicans controlled Congress. Other observers have suggested Putnam, still just 36, is laying the ground work for a future run for governor.
Agriculture is “my professional background, it’s my academic background, it’s what my family is involved in to this day,” Putnam said when he announced he was leaving Congress.
Maddox is also often pointed to as someone who has habitually run for office, and may have higher aspirations. He has served as president of the Florida League of Cities, been a speaker at the Democratic National Convention and partnered with a political legend, former House Speaker and Senate President Mallory Horne, in the Maddox Horne law firm. This is his third run for statewide office, having lost the Democratic primary for attorney general in 2002 and making a short-lived run for governor in 2005.