Ag commissioner candidate wants conservatism to be issue in race
TAMPA - In the Republican primary for Florida agriculture commissioner, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow seems like a natural. One of the party's fastest-rising stars, he reached a leadership position in Congress three years ago at age 31. He comes from a prominent Polk County citrus and cattle ranching family, and he was even state 4-H president in high school. Political junkies considered him a shoo-in when he announced in February. But state Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis intends to put up a fight against Putnam in the primary. Claiming the role of the true conservative in the race, he hopes to turn the race into the kind of ideological battle that's becoming common in the Republican Party."This will shape up as a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," Baker told the Tribune last week. "I'm the true conservative in this race. Congressman Putnam had an opportunity to stand up for those values, and he failed to do so." Baker acknowledged his strategy and language in the race echo the conservative challenge by Marco Rubio against Gov. Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate. He cited Putnam's votes for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that helped troubled financial institutions, and the Cash for Clunkers program; and Putnam's support for the AgJobs bill, which would establish a legalization program for illegal immigrant farmworkers, but which Baker said amounts to "amnesty." He also criticized Putnam for continuing to seek budget "earmarks" for local causes. But Putnam, who has a history of strong partisan and conservative stances in Congress, may be harder to paint as a moderate than Crist. Baker has been known in the Legislature as coming from the right side of the GOP political spectrum, but so has Putnam. Putnam has received routine A-ratings from the National Rifle Association, high ratings from the Right To Life organization and business advocacy groups, and low ratings from the Public Citizen consumer advocacy organization. His two House leadership posts - GOP conference chairman and policy committee chairman - have made him a spokesman for party positions. They also helped him earn a title that's not intended as an honor but that some Republicans consider one - in February, 2007 he won Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" award for an attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Putnam backers say the tactic is a sign of desperation on the part of Baker, who got into the race early and recruited some of his support at a time when it wasn't known that Putnam would run. "I do think his campaign strategy is tacking away from agriculture because agriculture has broadly embraced my campaign," Putnam responded. "He's shifting away from that and into an ideological battle that has very little relevance to the day-to-day responsibilities of the commissioner of agriculture." "If you don't have real solutions, maybe you try and make it about ideology." Putnam didn't respond to most of Baker's specific criticism, but said of the AgJobsbill, "I'm intrigued that a candidate for commissioner of agriculture would criticize an effort to have a stable, legal workforce for agriculture so this country won't be as dependent on others for food as it is for fuel. If he has a better plan, let's hear it." Baker acknowledges he has to come from behind in the race, at least financially. With the advantage of his congressional seat, Putnam raised $975,000 by the end of September toward a race that may cost $3 million in all. Baker trailed, but had a respectable $458,000 total. Putnam boasts endorsements from much of the agriculture industry, including Florida Citrus Mutual; the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association; farm bureaus in several large counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk; and top officers of the state Cattlemen's Association, the Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Tomato Exchange. He's also got strong party backing, shown by endorsements from former party chairs Tom Slade and Carole Jean Jordan and Republican National Committee delegate Paul Senft and other party leaders. But Baker can cite endorsements of his own, including the Florida Professional Firefighters and Fraternal Order of Police, and several of his fellow Republicans in the state Senate. Those include Sen. JDAlexander from Putnam's home county, and some Crist backers. For them, Baker's strategy, reminiscent of Rubio's attacks on Crist, is awkward. "Oh boy," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a loyal Crist ally and a Baker supporter, when told of Baker's comments. Fasano said he doesn't expect an ideological battle -- "I support Carey Baker because I've served with him, he's a hard worker, has fought for less taxes and less government." Baker, who owns a gun shop in Mount Dora, a long-time family business, can't claim Putnam's agriculture credentials, but said he worked closely with the department because of his committee assignments in the Legislature. "I'd be able to step into that job having worked with Commissioner (Charlie) Bronson for years," he said - adding that he has an endorsement from another prominent son of Polk County, former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford. Baker said he brings life and business experience to the job, including having served as an infantry sergeant in the Iraq war. Agriculture is not the commissioner's sole job - he's also one of four members of the state Cabinet, and oversees state forests and much of state licensing and consumer protection effort. Baker estimated that pure agriculture is about a third of the job, but Putnam said that estimate "is selling agriculture short." If you're not a farmer ... Why do you care who gets elected state agriculture commissioner? One reason is that agriculture is Florida's second-biggest industry, after tourism. Another is that under Florida's form of government, the commissioner deals with a lot more than agriculture: The commissioner is one of four members of the state Cabinet, along with the governor, attorney general and chief financial officer. They vote on many issues that in other states are decided just by the governor or agency heads, from power plant sitings to environmental land acquisition to managing state investments. The agency the commissioner heads is actually the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, handling most kinds of consumer complaints. It is also the licensing agency for agricultural and other industries from amusement park rides to pawnshops, and includes the Division of Forestry, which manages 1 million acres of state forests. According to some estimates, the state agriculture commissioner typically spends less than half his time dealing directly with agriculture.
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761.