TALLAHASSEE — Adam Putnam and Scott Maddox both want to be Florida's next commissioner of agriculture, but their campaign rhetoric makes it sound like they're running for two separate jobs.
A Democratic lawyer from Tallahassee, Maddox says at least 75 percent of the office is focused on consumer protection. In campaign materials and interviews, he stresses the full name of the agency he would lead: the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
"People view this office as farmer in chief, and that's not what it does," Maddox said this week at an early voting sign-waving event in Tallahassee.
Putnam, a Republican congressman from Bartow, underscores his deep roots in agriculture and says consumer issues are one of several key responsibilities of the post.
"If you're going to be prepared to take the job from day one and take the department to the next level, you need to be comprehensive in your approach," he said.
Putnam's campaign signs, like the ballots millions of voters will see, use only the shorthand Department of Agriculture. While underscoring the importance of consumer issues, Putnam said Maddox is focused nearly "exclusively on the consumer piece of the job."
Both candidates are relatively young and ambitious. While still in law school at Florida State University, Maddox was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission and became the city's youngest mayor at age 28.
Maddox also had stints as president of the Florida League of Cities and chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. He lost the Democratic primary for attorney general in 2002 and briefly ran for governor in 2005, dropping out when an audit revealed the party, under his watch, failed to pay $200,000 in payroll taxes. The audit did not specifically fault Maddox but said he could have shown more oversight.
Putnam was elected to the Florida House right out of college and won his Polk County-based Congressional seat at age 26. A member of the Financial Services committee, Putnam helped write the 2008 farm bill and drafted food safety legislation that passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Putnam secured $5.9 million in earmarks in the 2010 budget, according to a database from the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. The largest two grants are $2.4 million for language training for military personnel at the University of South Florida and $1 million for a renewable energy program. Putnam has supported bills to have more public accountability for such spending requests from individual members of Congress.
Like all other House Republicans, Putnam voted against President Barack Obama's stimulus bill. But last August he requested stimulus money for a University of Florida project to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Perry. He said he still believes the stimulus has failed, but he was supporting UF's effort to find new sources of renewable energy.
Putnam, 36, grew up on his family's citrus and cattle farm and owns a 20 percent interest in it. He also studied food and resource economics at UF.
Maddox, 42, doesn't have an extensive agricultural background, though he grew up on a farm in Homestead and later moved to rural Leon County.
A recent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey showed Putnam with a 9-point lead over Maddox, with many undecided voters. Putnam has a large financial edge and has been airing television ads longer and more frequently than Maddox.
Also running are two lesser known candidates: independent Thad Hamilton and Ira Chester, of the Florida tea party. Chester, a retired state worker from Tallahassee, has donated $900 to Maddox's various bids for office.
With a $128,972 annual salary, the commissioner of agriculture is best known for regulating and promoting Florida's farms and crops. The person is also a member of the Florida Cabinet, which oversees areas such as environmental land management and restoring rights to former felons.
Offshore oil drilling offers another distinction between the candidates. Under a 2009 bill that cleared the state House but stalled in the Senate, the Cabinet would have decided whether to lease portions of state-owned waters to oil companies.
Maddox has long opposed drilling in Florida waters, calling it shortsighted. Before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill he held several anti-drilling events.
Putnam says he opposes "near-shore drilling." In Congress, he backed opening more federal Florida waters to drilling. He says the United States should invest in both oil exploration and alternative energy.
Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the current agriculture commissioner, Charles Bronson, said roughly half of the department's $300 million budget covers "consumer protection."
In addition to the division that investigates consumer complaints, McElroy also counts food safety, pesticide regulation and managing 1 million acres of forests for public use. "If that's not consumer protection then what is?" he said.
Maddox says he would turn the office into a "consumer watchdog" that prosecutes scams and unfair business practices. "I think we ought to care about more than just citrus and cattle."
Putnam says food safety is a key consumer protection, and he would better publicize threats to the food supply. He would also target fake charities and promote healthy food at schools.
He also promised to increase monitoring gulf shellfish for effects from the oil spill. More aggressive monitoring, he said, would give people a "high level of confidence that Florida fresh seafood is quantitatively safer than other gulf seafood."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.