1. Opinion

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a proud NRA sellout, triggered a boycott of Publix, mocked the value of higher education, divided voters between caring families and liberal elites, and scheduled a fundraiser with a man who was videotaped shooting two pet huskies.

What happened to the Putnam who talks to anybody, knows public policy cold and still seems like the earnest young man next door even in his early 40s?

Last week was not a good week for the Republican candidate for governor who should be the overwhelming favorite. Publix, the venerable supermarket giant that, like Putnam, calls Polk County home, found itself in a firestorm after the Tampa Bay Times reported the company's founder and its current and former leaders gave Putnam $670,000 in the last three years. That's probably more Publix money than any candidate ever has received, and critics were quick to tie supporting Putnam with supporting the National Rifle Association and call for a store boycott. Publix initially said it meant only to support its local hero, but it was forced to retreat and announce it will re-examine its processes for contributing to political candidates.

The irony is that Putnam long supported the Second Amendment but was not one of the NRA's leading lights. Then he took exception last year to Times columnist Daniel Ruth's criticism of his call to let National Guard members carry guns on college campuses. Putnam responded by tweeting, "I'm a proud #NRASellout!'' The label stuck, and it looks even less flattering following more mass shootings such as the massacre in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Yet Putnam doesn't even support the minimal gun controls that Republican legislators approved after Parkland and Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.

Putnam's initial television commercials aren't exactly unifying, either. One echoes President Donald Trump's slogans by declaring "Florida First" and implying only conservative voters care about their families. Another ad makes a legitimate call for promoting vocational education, but it writes off university degrees as a waste of money that load students with debt and don't lead to jobs. So only "liberal elites" want their kids to go to college? Student debt is a real issue, but the value of a four-year degree has been proven time and again. The Adam Putnam with the bachelor's degree from the University of Florida knows better.

The agriculture commissioner who touts his family's ties to the cattle industry also knows better than to schedule a fundraiser last week at the Orlando home of a man who was videotaped shooting two pet huskies that entered a cow pasture. The campaign spokesman's initial retort — Republican candidate Ron DeSantis received money from a Democratic donor — was an insulting false equivalency. Hours later, the fundraiser was canceled.

It's understandable Putnam feels pulled to the far right, given that DeSantis has benefited from a favorable nod from Trump and the U.S. House member is a regular on Fox News. But there will be a general election in November. Being a proud NRA sellout, dismissing the value of higher education, dividing Floridians and schmoozing with a dog shooter is not the road to the Governor's Mansion.

So keep an eye out for the real Adam Putnam. He better show up fast, perhaps in the produce aisle at Publix.