1. Archive

Candidates battle with their boots on

Published Oct. 8, 2005

First in a series examining the races for the Florida Cabinet.

Jim Smith, wearing faded jeans and a borrowed Stetson, is ankle-deep in dirt and cow manure to show he's in touch with Florida farmers.

"Shooooo! Shoooooo!" he says to a dozen stubborn cows, waving his arms to herd them into a pen. "C'mon cows!"

He's clearly more of a millionaire politician than a cowboy, but he knows enough to step out of the way when the 1,000-pound cows start thundering toward the gate.

Smith says he understands farming because he has owned cattle for 20 years. "It's not anything real foreign to me. I've been on a horse."

A few days later, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford is speaking to the Florida Farm Bureau beneath the chandeliers in the Daytona Beach Marriott. Crawford, wearing a blue blazer and cowboy boots, refers to the farmers like he is one of them and quotes from an article in National Cattlemen magazine.

He boasts about his accomplishments and says he understands their needs. "Over the years I've been coming to this meeting, I've listened to what you had to say."

The campaign for agriculture commissioner has been a battle of the boots, with each candidate trying to out-farm the other.

Crawford likes to reminisce about frigid nights when he was a teenager in Bartow, burning tires to keep citrus trees from freezing. "It was cold," he says. "If your tires went out, the trees would die."

Smith counters by reminding voters that he has been a sod farmer and cattle rancher. When he announced his candidacy, Smith declared, "I'd much rather go to a cow sale than a ballet."

The campaign has also been a battle of the briefs, with lawyers filing complaints and counter-complaints since Smith jumped into the race Sept. 23.

A little-known Tallahassee lobbyist was the original Republican nominee, but he dropped out so party leaders could pick someone else. Smith, the secretary of state, had just quit the governor's race and then switched to the agriculture campaign.

Crawford went ballistic. Smith's "last-minute switch really tramples on our system of elections," he said. "He's trying to pull a fast one."

Smith's frugal footwear

In a year when the public seems to have turned against government, career politician Jim Smith is surprisingly popular.

He has been a Democrat and a Republican, the chief of staff to two governors, attorney general and secretary of state.

His friends say he's honest and dedicated to public service. "He's solid, he's not pretentious," says Dempsey Barron, a former state senator who, like Smith, switched parties to become a Republican.

Smith, famous for his gap-toothed smile and his frugal footwear, says he's a low-key leader. "I don't see a lot of sense in screaming and yelling. I don't think I'm a big shot. I'm not a back-slapper."

But he is also a shrewd politician who takes advantage of opportunities.

After Smith dropped out of the governor's race, Jeb Bush sent a letter to Bush contributors urging them to give money to Smith's agriculture campaign. "Jim Smith showed the people of Florida the true qualities of a statesman," Bush wrote. The return envelopes to the Smith campaign were marked "ATTN: JEB BUSH."

Smith boasts about his record as secretary of state, saying he improved efficiency and got more money for libraries. As agriculture commissioner, he would boost promotion of Florida products and raise salaries for department employees. (He says he can do that without higher taxes by not replacing some employees who retire or quit.)

He says he'll fight for farmers against "the ivory-tower bureaucrats who won't let you build anything on your property."

Smith has been holding "work days," styled after U.S. Sen. Bob Graham's, to show he can get his boots dirty. He has worked in a citrus packing house, a nursery and a cattle farm.

"It's a question of listening to farmers, trying to help them," Smith says. "It takes a lot of time."

Crawford sees him differently. He says Smith's work days are just stunts to get on the evening news. He says Smith's introduction to farming "was basically family money buying large tracts of land and converting it to farms."

Crawford says Smith would just use the agriculture job to prepare another run for governor.

Smith acknowledges he'd like to be governor, but says, "I will be very content to be commissioner of agriculture. I won't be lying in bed thinking, "how will this affect how I run for governor?' "

Crawford's art

of compromise

Sitting in his state Capitol office, Crawford proudly points to his telephone.

"That's the phone I used to talk with President Clinton about NAFTA," he says.

Crawford's negotiations to protect citrus and other growers cleared the way for Florida's congressional delegation to ultimately support the trade bill.

It was classic Crawford, a political compromise that broke the logjam. As president of the Florida Senate for two years, he thrived during the late-night sessions, making deals, solving problems.

"I can take people from opposing viewpoints and find solutions," he says. "If you can't find those solutions, you just wind up butting heads."

He says he has been an effective agriculture commissioner for four years. He says he forced DuPont to pay more than $600-million for crop damage from its Benlate fungicide, he had a South Florida farmer's market rebuilt in record time after Hurricane Andrew, and he shook up his department's inspectors to make sure they weren't too cozy with the people they regulate.

"It's not exciting, it's not sexy," Crawford says. "But it's critical to a lot of people. You've got to make a commitment to do the job."

Smith criticizes Crawford for being out-of-touch with farmers, for running the office from Crawford's home in Winter Haven for much of his four-year term.

Eddie Davis, a cattle rancher and owner of the Chuck Wagon House restaurant in Chipley, says Crawford "doesn't mix and mingle real well. People up here expect you to be one of 'em."

Crawford says he is being unfairly compared with predecessor Doyle Conner, who held the job for 30 years and got to know thousands of farmers across the state.

"The heart of the job is accomplishments," Crawford says. "The number of rodeos and parades you show up for is not an accomplishment."