Putnam, the pol who proves refreshingly sane

Published May 7, 2012

It's difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had his political epiphany. It wasn't quite a Saul-falling-off-his-horse-on-the-way-to-Damascus revelation that led the then-congressman to decide he had better things to do than hang around Washington dealing with a pelt of Flat Earth Society demagogues.

But perhaps this comes close enough.

Putnam, who was first elected to the Florida Legislature at the age of 12 (or so it seemed), had ascended to the U.S. House of Representatives, where by 2006 he became the third most powerful member of his party's caucus as the Republican conference chairman.

As it turned out this was like being the third most powerful member of a psych ward. Good times, good times.

He was 32 years old. By any standard Putnam had a long and successful political pathway ahead of him. With a safe seat in Congress well into infinity, for the Bartow pol it was not far-fetched to see him as a future Speaker, or perhaps senator. Maybe he'd even gain — dare it even be thought — a better Washington housing arrangement at some point down the road.

Instead Putnam walked away from it all, an almost unheard-of career choice for someone as young and as fast-tracked as he was. This would have been the hustings equivalent of Bill Gates retiring after only making his first million.

For Putnam, the realization that he was a member of the U.S. House of Zombies probably began to percolate in 2008 as the presidential election went into overdrive and the economy started to take a dive.

Because of his leadership perch, Putnam was on the speed dial list of Washington's elite insiders. And as the economy withered, the young congressman often found himself fielding calls from the likes of then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for an update on the crisis.

"We always say Congress does the right thing when we are in crisis," Putnam mused the other day during a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. To Putnam, with the unemployment lines growing, home foreclosures rising and the financial markets imploding, "it seemed like a crisis to me."

Silly Adam.

Instead, Putnam recalled a moment when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared before the Republican caucus to provide a briefing on the spreading financial cancer. Widely regarded as an astute, sober-minded economist, Bernanke was met with ridicule and derision by the Republican House members.

Putnam was flabbergasted by the show of disrespect. "There were guys (in the caucus) who couldn't count the commas in a trillion dollars talking to Bernanke like he was a dog."

Tipping point? Maybe. It's one thing to be designated a leader. It's quite another when you are expected to lead a pitchfork of zealots who are in denial over reality.

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As 2010 rolled around, Putnam took a pass on re-election, returned to Florida and won the job as agriculture commissioner, trading in one barnyard substance for another. Indeed Putnam may be the first politician to leave office "to spend more time with the family" who actually spent more time with his family.

Putnam returned to a vastly changed Tallahassee political culture from the one he experienced as a state House member from 1996 to 2000. Unbridled partisanship grips the Florida Legislature, too, Putnam noted.

Stricter ethics laws have made it more difficult for bipartisan collegiality. And term limits make sure members rarely develop any expertise on their assigned committees, only enhancing the influence of lobbyists.

"The eight-year (term limit) time frame virtually guarantees the likelihood of someone spending more than one term as a committee chair is almost nil because it suggests you are ineffective," Putnam said. And so the rush is always on to move up to higher-profile, influential committees that have greater fundraising potential.

That's not governance. It's political prostitution.

Just months shy of 38, Putnam is hardly without a vast array of elective options.

There is a sense that with Rick Scott's approval ratings somewhere between the Taliban and the Greek Parliament, there might be a young, attractive, articulate, popular Republican who isn't crazy lingering in the woodpile willing to take on an incumbent governor in 2014.

Perhaps there is, but it won't be Adam Putnam, who insisted that he's quite content where his political life has taken him these days.

Ah, but 2018 might be an entirely different story. By then the Opie of the Apalachee Parkway will still only be a mere child of 44.