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Smith for Agriculture

Until barely a month ago, the campaign for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture was true to historic precedent. The incumbent faced only token opposition. Except for the farmers, pesticide manufacturers and other agribusinesses, no one cared.

That changed when Secretary of State Jim Smith, having ceded the Republican gubernatorial nomination to Jeb Bush, accepted his party's invitation to replace its bench warmer candidate against Democratic Commissioner Bob Crawford.

Smith is no token. Overnight, he became the presumed favorite, leaving poor Crawford to decry the tag-team tactics and to sue in vain to block Smith from running or taking partial public financing.

We, among others, urged Smith not to make the leap. But he did, and the courts so far have been resolving the legalities in Smith's favor. Since he is a qualified candidate in every sense, the question becomes whether GOP Chairman Tom Slade's machinations should be held against Smith. No. Next, who might make the better agriculture commissioner?

We recommend Smith. He's had an uncommonly good career in public service, including being chief of staff to two governors, deputy secretary of commerce, deputy secretary of state, attorney general for eight years and secretary of state for nearly eight. He's been unafraid of conventional political wisdom on such hot-button issues as tax and election reform. As attorney general, he aggressively enforced the antitrust laws. Both of his elected Cabinet administrations have been well managed and scandal-free.

His interest in the elected Cabinet's collective responsibilities, especially education and law enforcement, seems keener than Crawford's.

Under Crawford these past four years, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is vastly improved from the 30-year reign of Doyle Conner, and Crawford deserves credit for that. Where Conner scarcely lifted a finger for consumers, Crawford seized the initiative by promoting passage of a new law against auto repair fraud.

Yet Crawford was eager, two years ago, to give up his consumer protection mantle in exchange for the governor's responsibility to regulate the parimutuel gambling industry. Though Crawford said he no longer supports that bad idea, he left his priorities open to question when he played along with it. By waiting until the last year of his term to move his residence to Tallahassee, he also invited doubts about his overall commitment to the job.

Their attitudes toward the governor and Cabinet as an institution are relevantly different. Smith, ever the iconoclast, believes that Florida could make do with just a governor, an attorney general and a chief state fiscal officer. Agriculture, he asserts, could be regulated as well by an appointed official. Crawford, the traditionalist, argues that farmers need and deserve a commissioner they can elect. This might be true if the job's only duties were to promote agriculture, but they also include regulation _ as of food products and pesticides _ that's vital to public health. In practice, agribusiness interests have controlled this office through their campaign contributions. This year's election, because of its unique circumstances, is a rare opportunity to elect a commissioner who is open to change.