BARTOW — Adam Putnam, the Republican agriculture commissioner and fifth-generation Florida native, has been building toward his gubernatorial campaign for years, if not decades.
On Wednesday, he offered his vision for where he wants to lead Florida, making clear to a hometown crowd that he sees the state heading in the right direction.
"Our state can be the launch pad for the American dream," he said. "The state that is the fishing capital of the world can also be the state that builds the boats and trains the craftsmen. The state that trained millions of soldiers and sailors and airmen can retrain our citizens with the skills that allow them to compete in a rapidly changing world — and win. The state that put a man on the moon can build the tools for the next giant leap for mankind."
It was a setting befitting Norman Rockwell, with Putnam in front of crates of Florida oranges and the domed, 108-year-old historic Polk County Courthouse draped with the flags of Florida and the United States. Supporters were entertained by the Bartow High marching band and the fiddle and double bass of Lakeland's Brian Sutherland Band.
"Some people say that this doesn't exist anymore," said Putnam, 42, noting the flags waving and prayer on the courthouse steps.
Republicans have controlled the governor's office and virtually all of state government for nearly two decades, and Putnam indicated he sees no need for a change in priorities or agenda. To the crowd of at least 1,000 people, Putnam spoke broadly of the importance of education, job training, veterans, gun rights and natural resources.
Florida, he noted to reporters after his rally, "is showing record tourism numbers. We've cut the unemployment rate in half in the last seven years. We are back to attracting record numbers of new residents to our state. We need to build on that success, diversify our economy, create higher wages and new opportunities for Floridians."
Putnam is the first Republican candidate to enter the race, though two fellow Tampa Bay Republicans — House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes and state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater — are considering running, too. Putnam is serving his second term as agriculture commissioner, and spent 10 years in Congress and four years in the Legislature. He is the clear front-runner, with more than $7 million in his campaign account and after decades spent building a statewide political network.
Democrats already running or seriously looking are Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Orlando businessman Chris King, Miami Beach businessman and Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan.
Speaking briefly to reporters, Putnam brushed off the frequent knock by critics that he is a career politician at a time when voters want something different.
"Floridians want a governor who knows the state, who knows the problems facing our state and how to fix them and how to treat people along the way," he said. "My experience managing crises from managing wildfires to managing a large organization and bringing a business background to this is going to make me the most-prepared candidate for governor regardless of who runs."
Putnam is part of a prominent and wealthy cattle and citrus family in Polk County, and among the hometown crowd in downtown Bartow, person after person recounted how Putnam looked like a future governor ages ago. In five minutes of random interviews, three different people predicted he would wind up in the White House.
"You may not hear that a lot nationally, but you will hear a lot of people around here say that," said S.L. Frisbie, retired publisher of the Polk County Democrat newspaper. "When he first ran for the Legislature, it was apparent that he would one day be running for governor."
"Even before he was 12, his dad said, 'He's going to be governor someday.' We all knew it," said Virginia Condello, who works at the Greater Bartow Chamber of Commerce.
Putnam, elected to the Florida House at age 22, is a graduate of the University of Florida. He and his wife, Melissa, have four children and live in Bartow.
The new candidate is launching a 10-day bus tour that takes him to a Florida Strawberry Growers Association breakfast at 8 a.m. today in Dover in eastern Hillsborough County and to a 2 p.m. meet-and-greet at Bascom's Chop House on Ulmerton Road in mid Pinellas County.