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Farming battle gets more fodder

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford on Sunday attacked opponent Jim Smith for saying the state's top farming job should be demoted from the Cabinet.

"He's basically saying the agriculture industry is not that important," Crawford said at a meeting of the Florida Farm Bureau. "For him to say that is an insult to the industry."

Smith made the remarks during a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board _ a meeting held while Smith was running in the Republican primary for governor. The comments drew little attention when they were published Sept. 15 because Smith was not yet a candidate for agriculture commissioner.

Smith made the comment while discussing proposals to reform Florida's Cabinet, which has power over some state rules and a few agencies, such as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Some officials would like to shrink the Cabinet and consolidate its power.

Crawford said Sunday that Smith's proposed demotion for the agriculture job would take away his department's clout and make the commissioner "just another hired government worker."

Smith, who was attending the same meeting Sunday, initially said he could not remember making the remark. Later he acknowledged making the comment but said he would like other Cabinet jobs demoted first.

"If you had to prioritize, I'd do comptroller and insurance first," Smith said. "Then I'd probably (demote) secretary of state. The Cabinet system is important, but it's not nearly as important as it used to be."

He said he did not want to "bump down the status" of the agriculture job and would try to raise the visibility of the office.

The agriculture campaign, usually a ho-hum affair, has turned into a bitter fight.

Frank Darden, the initial Republican nominee, withdrew so party leaders could pick someone else. Smith, who serves on the Cabinet as secretary of state, jumped into the agriculture race after he quit his campaign for governor.

On Sunday, Crawford portrayed Smith as a political opportunist who took part in "a little switcheroo" to run for the farming job.

"The key issue here is commitment," said Crawford, a Democrat. "This is not a consolation prize."

Smith responded, "I take (that comment) as a personal insult. I'm in this race because I care about this job."