Smith: Adam Putnam knows Florida, but that might not be enough today to become governor

Gov. Rick Scott is running for the U.S. Senate, which he made official at an event in Orlando. [Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS]
Gov. Rick Scott is running for the U.S. Senate, which he made official at an event in Orlando. [Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS]
Published April 13, 2018

Here is a little secret among reporters who regularly interact with Gov. Rick Scott:

Reporters know it rarely matters if they happen to miss one of the governor's periodic and brief question and answer sessions. He almost never says anything.

How should America respond to the Syrian government's alleged chemical attacks last weekend, a reporter asked Scott Tuesday after a Tampa rally for his newly announced U.S. Senate campaign.

"The two biggest things that the federal government's got to do? They've got to create an economy where people can get a job. That's No. 1 and what we've done in Florida. No. 2 is we've got to make sure we defend this country," Scott responded without hesitation.

"This country is the land of opportunity, it's the land of the free, the land of freedom, and all that. We've got to do that. And when we can help other countries, we need to show up. It's like what happened in Syria. Disgusting what happened there. Look even closer to home. Look at what's happened to Cuba over the last 50 years, and what's going on in Venezuela right now. This country has got to do whatever we can to defend this country, but promote freedom worldwide."

There you have it, Senate candidate Rick Scott's four-point plan for Syria. Land of freedom and all that. Defend ourselves. Disgusting Cuba and Venezuela. Help when we can.

And that was an unusually responsive answer from the governor.

Pressing Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, for policy prescriptions or interesting, substantive answers about most anything else was similarly futile.

Crist invariably would tell reporters some variation of, "We work for the people." Or sometimes, "What do you think?"

Rewind back to the Jeb Bush era from 1999 to 2007. Reporters learned quickly that if they missed a four-minute Q&A with Gov. Bush, they might miss six good stories.

Gov. Bush could be curmudgeonly and disdainful on any given day with reporters, but he engaged like an actual human being and generally enjoyed weighing in on policy questions and debates.

Never a sound-bite politician, Bush comfortably spoke off the cuff about even obscure policy questions without requiring a staff briefing beforehand.

Watching Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam agreeably field an array of questions from a bipartisan crowd at Tampa's Oxford Exchange recently, it was apparent that Putnam would be Florida's first governor since Bush utterly at ease wading into policy discussions.

That is a big contrast to his primary rivals, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Pasco County.

DeSantis so far has all but boycotted reporters who might ask him about Florida issues or holding public events where uninvited guests might hear him discuss Florida issues. Instead, the 39-year-old former Navy lawyer appears on Fox News multiple times a week to criticize the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

One night in February Corcoran held a little-watched online debate with Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum about a sanctuary cities bill in the Legislature, while on Fox News DeSantis and Tucker Carlson lamented unfair treatment of President Donald Trump by investigators.

"Some people are trying to win the Tallahassee news cycle, some people are trying to win the election," scoffed DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold on Twitter.

Corcoran, 53, also is generally inaccessible. Befitting a lifelong political operative, he invariably wants to speak off the record to reporters before agreeing to what he is willing to be quoted on.

He also can be passionate about policy, but his focus tends to be on broad ideological issues — more private sector competition for public schools, for instance, or fewer tax incentives to recruit businesses — than nuts and bolts governing.

It's not that Putnam, 43, has a big, bold vision for Florida. He does not. His platform essentially is to keep the Sunshine State heading on its current track, but with much more emphasis on vocational education.

What's striking, especially after eight years of relatively recent Florida transplant Scott as governor, is Putnam's deep understanding of the state. A fifth-generation Floridian who has spent a lifetime in state and federal office and decades courting voters statewide tends to know a thing or two about Florida, especially when he also happens to be a policy wonk.

At the Cafe con Tampa community forum, he lamented that promotion of Florida culture and history dwindled after Floridians stopped electing their secretary of state 20 years ago.

He made an offhand comment of Hillsborough County having America's eighth-largest school district, while north Florida's Hamilton County had just two schools.

He mentioned the Tampa Bay water wars that divided the region when Putnam was still at Bartow High School.

He spoke of the traffic congestion between Brickell Avenue and Coral Gables in Miami Dade, traffic patterns around Orlando, and how Florida had not expanded its interstate system significantly since Florida's population was half as large as it is today.

"So that may mean punching Suncoast up to 10," Putnam said, referring to the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 10. "To me it makes no sense to move the Suncoast back into 75 back into Ocala and Gainesville — which is the worst part of 75, and it doesn't have to be game day for it to be the worst part."

For all his ease engaging with voters and reporters Putnam so far has been uncharacteristically cautious about talking to the press during the campaign or weighing in promptly on hot button issues — including the post-Parkland gun control legislation that he eventually opposed.

His cautious strategy seems aimed more at avoiding losing the primary than aggressively running to win it. That means raising vast amounts of campaign money and treading lightly on hot-button issues or the latest Trump controversy.

That's another way Putnam mirrors Gov. Bush. Bush's so-called "shock and awe" presidential campaign strategy involved building a massive campaign war chest and relying on his policy smarts and deep ties to the GOP establishment to deliver him the nomination.

Unfortunately for both, that safe strategy failed miserably for Bush. Policy substance should help with governing, but there is little evidence it wins Republican primaries today.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.