It's fitting that Jeff Kottkamp's political rise involved an airplane trip.
On the morning of Sept. 13, 2006, reporters filed onto Charlie Crist's campaign plane without being told where we were going. "Undisclosed location" was the official line.
We resented it. It was media manipulation at its best, but it was either that or miss the announcement. Only when the plane was out of reach of reporters to use cell phones and BlackBerry units did Crist spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus utter these words: "We're headed to southwest Florida," where Kottkamp lived.
The 48-year-old lawyer and former House member from Cape Coral has been encased in Crist's shadow for the past 21/2 years, his obscurity shattered only by his own frequent use of state planes to commute to Tallahassee.
Nobody knows who the lieutenant governor is. The idea is to be seen and not heard, to avoid controversy at all costs.
For Kottkamp, the bad news is that what most people know about him is that he flew on the state plane a lot.
The good news is that the two candidates for governor, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, have their own frequent-flier controversies that are, like Kottkamp's, fodder for investigations by the Commission on Ethics. Once again, Kottkamp may find himself overshadowed by others — to his advantage.
This week, for the first time, Kottkamp began to emerge from Crist's shadow as he attempts to become the first lieutenant governor in state history to win higher office.
Cast adrift when his meal ticket, Crist, opted to run for the U.S. Senate, Kottkamp now must stand on his own two feet and try to win office independently.
He now must walk a delicate line, balancing his fealty to Crist with his need to establish an independent identity. He will be forced to re-address his own record, such as his support (as a legislator in 2001) for flying the Confederate flag on public grounds.
Kottkamp wants to be Florida's next attorney general — the state's chief legal officer, arbiter of public records disputes, and member of the Cabinet on major policy issues ranging from the environment to investing pension funds.
"I feel very excited about this campaign," he said, "and I wouldn't run if we weren't going to run to win."
He shaved off his mustache. He hired campaign consultant Rocky Pennington, long aligned with the influential trial bar.
He launched a Web site, www.jeffkottkamp.com, where you can watch a four-minute video in which he vows to get tough with the "vile thugs" preying on innocent Floridians.
Kottkamp is well liked, and the trial bar is comfortable with him — a rare thing for a Republican candidate. It was telling that neither of his two Democratic rivals, state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, would poke him this week when given the chance.
Skittish about reading about more plane-trip stories, Kottkamp now largely travels by car. In the past few weeks, Kottkamp has logged 3,000 miles, according to the state trooper who's at his side 24/7.
Those travels in a state-owned SUV surely will increase as he works to boost his visibility as a candidate for attorney general. This week alone he was in Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa and Miami, ending the week Friday on familiar turf — his home base of Fort Myers.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.