TALLAHASSEE — Adam Putnam was the youngest member of Congress when he went to Capitol Hill in 2001 — six months shy of his 26th birthday.
Success came quickly to the newcomer from Bartow, whose grasp of policy and skill at messaging made him a protégé of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and No. 3 in the House Republican hierarchy.
Along the way, Putnam racked up a record of votes, some of which haunt him as he seeks the Republican nomination for governor next year in a field that is yet to take shape.
[Scripps Howard News Service]
Putnam voted for a new Medicare prescription drug benefit; $700 billion for the so-called Wall Street bailout; $187 billion to rescue mortgage lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae; and $2 billion for a "Cash for Clunkers" car trade-in program.
"Let's go back and look at what the world was like," Florida's current Commissioner of Agriculture said in a Times/Herald interview at a Masonic lodge in rural Wausau, recalling the Great Recession's misery in 2008 and 2009 with its double-digit unemployment. "Every decision I made then was hard, but had working men and women and families in mind."
But for Putnam, who has long dreamed of life in the Governor's Mansion, one issue in Congress still stalks him like no other.
A question of 'amnesty'
On immigration, many conservatives see any attempt to chart a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as "amnesty," a vague but toxic term in a race for governor in which Putnam is sure to face serious challenges from the right.
Amnesty is an elastic word. The dictionary says it's "the act of an authority (such as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals." Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has called it an "unconditional" pardon.
Putnam, whose family's citrus and cattle business employs immigrants who are "legally eligible" to work in Florida, twice pushed for legislation in Congress that would have helped undocumented workers. Both proposals had conditions that had to be met, such as specific work hours and a clean criminal record.
Eight years ago, he was a co-sponsor of H.R. 2414, a bill known as the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or the "Ag Jobs Act of 2009."
A bipartisan effort in President Barack Obama's first term to repair the nation's broken immigration system, it had a guest worker program and was supported by some of the most liberal members of Congress such as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
That state, like Florida, has an agricultural economy that needs immigrant labor, both legal and illegal.
The bill had a pilot program of earned status for immigrants, who after working a specific number of hours in the fields, would get work visas known as blue cards. Then, after three years of lawful labor, they could apply for citizenship -— an idea labeled amnesty by a prominent conservative group
"This would provide amnesty and a direct path to citizenship," the Heritage Foundation said at the time. "Reject amnesty."
It died without a vote. Then as now, Putnam rejects the notion that he favors amnesty for immigrants.
"I've never supported amnesty," he said. "I worked to find a way to fix a broken immigration system."
After a White House meeting on immigration with President Obama and congressional leaders in 2009, Putnam said: "Immigration is a complex issue, so there are any number of reforms possible. But granting amnesty to people who are here illegally must not be one of them."
Six years earlier, in 2003, Putnam was one of a dozen House Republicans who co-sponsored a bill, H.R. 2899, with a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants in all job sectors, patterned after a proposal by Arizona Sen. John McCain. It failed to pass.
Former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, who served in Congress from 1996 to 2010, praised Putnam's approach to immigration.
"He often was about solving problems," Wexler said. "He was part of the 'responsible wing' of the Republican Party."
But asked if Putnam still supports those ideas, his campaign said it was unrealistic to take stands on bills that are dead.
"Adam Putnam felt then and does now that our national immigration system is broken and Washington needs to fix it," spokeswoman Amanda Bevis said.
'Kind of leery'
Jack Oliver of North Palm Beach, legislative director of an anti-illegal immigration group, Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, said he's disillusioned with Putnam's overall record on immigration, including his lack of support for a federal law known as E-Verify to check the legal status of immigrant workers.
Oliver recalled that Putnam, in his first year on Florida's Cabinet in 2011, worked with then-Republican Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales to narrow the scope of an E-Verify bill (SB 2040) in the Florida Senate.
Alexander noted that his family citrus businesses in Polk County employed immigrants, and the E-Verify proposal drew flak from contractors and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which questioned its reliability and accuracy.
The amended bill limited E-Verify to one-stop career centers and state agencies and exempted private employers.
"It's the same old thing," Oliver said of Putnam. "When they run, they say they're for something. Then when push comes to shove, they don't follow through. We're just kind of leery. He's been a disappointment in the past."
Putnam's campaign said he opposes a "patchwork" of state laws and that immigration is a federal responsibility.
Throughout Putnam's decade on Capitol Hill, he compiled a voting record that The Almanac of American Politics called "reliably conservative."
Putnam consistently got A-plus grades from the NRA and his ratings from the American Conservative Union ranged between 92 and 100. Congressional Quarterly said Putnam voted with President George W. Bush about 98 percent of the time.
Numbers USA, an advocacy group that supports "lower immigration levels," was not so generous. Putnam's record with the group was a 65 — a C.
That reflected both his support for guest worker bills and his opposition to other proposals, such as giving legal status to "dreamers," children who came to the U.S. illegally, and a requirement that federal contractors use E-Verify.
On other key issues, Putnam voted for Bush's tax cuts, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and allowing the parents of Terri Schiavo to intervene in the Pinellas County woman's right-to-die case.
He opposed stem cell research, raising the minimum wage and ending a ban on same sex marriages.
Lying in wait
Putnam, 43, is a rarity: A candidate for Florida governor with a long voting record in Congress. Democrat Lawton Chiles, also a Polk County native, walked away from a safe U.S. Senate seat and ran for governor in 1990. Jim Davis had served as a Democratic Tampa U.S. representative for 10 years when he ran for governor in 2006. His opponent, Charlie Crist, ran a series of TV ads that lampooned his time in Washington, helping him defeat Davis.
Putnam's track record on Capitol Hill has not yet emerged as an issue because he has no announced opponents. They're out there, lying in wait.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, will announce his plans Aug. 16, and could seek a moderate path to the Republican nomination in a four- or five-person race.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are both poised to run as conservatives, with Corcoran hiring a pollster and political advisers who shaped President Donald J. Trump's message and TV ads in 2016.
Corcoran pollster Tony Fabrizio was among the first to directly attack Putnam over immigration.
Fabrizio posted a tweet July 7 on Putnam's "lengthy pro-illegal immigration record." On Aug. 1, Fabrizio again tweeted: "Adam Putnam is for amnesty for illegals."
PolitiFact Florida rated Fabrizio's claims Half True because of Putnam's frequent votes to stop illegal immigration, such as a 2010 vote to oppose amnesty for so-called "dreamers."
'A blank canvas'
Putnam won two statewide elections but they were for the most obscure Cabinet post.
In what's sure to be a brutal primary, Putnam's rivals will try to define him before he can do it himself, using those votes in Congress.
"His opponents are thinking, 'We will define who Adam used to be before he has the opportunity to,'" said a veteran Florida political strategist, J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a harsh critic of Trump who says Putnam is "pandering" to supporters of the president.
"Every election cycle is different, but they are clearly fighting the last war — 2016. It's dispiriting," Stipanovich said.
Putnam has led a charmed life in Florida politics.
His closest race was his first run for Congress, in 2000, when he got 57 percent of the vote. He has never been seriously tested in a Republican primary.
Anticipating the attacks, Putnam said: "I'm a consistent conservative. I'm a long, strong conservative. I've been attacked by the media from time to time for being too much of a conservative."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.