Florida's Republican primary for governor has been turned upside down by President Donald Trump. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam knows Florida, and he is as well-prepared as any candidate in memory to move into the Governor's Mansion. Yet U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has won Trump's endorsement for his full-throated support of the president on Fox News. DeSantis shows little understanding of state policy or of the challenges facing this state, and Florida Republicans should look beyond the president's tweets as they choose between the familiar conservative and the newest flavor of firebrand.
Experience and knowledge about the issues should be an asset, not a political liability. Putnam, 44, is a fifth-generation Floridian who grew up in Polk County, graduated from the University of Florida and was elected to the Florida House in 1996 at just 22 years old. He served four years in the Legislature, sponsoring the law that provided life sentences for repeat felons and supporting boot camps for juveniles who committed crimes. Even then, Putnam worked on issues involving agriculture and the environment, from fighting the invasion of exotic animals and plants to supporting programs to preserve and protect environmentally sensitive lands.
Putnam was elected to the U.S. House in 2000 and spent a decade in Congress, rising to become the third-ranking Republican House member. He was a reliable vote for President George W. Bush's administration, with a conservative record on subjects ranging from social issues to national security, the environment and immigration. He could speak in depth on issues ranging from global financial markets to foreign policy, but he remained attentive to his constituents in the district that was based in Polk County and covered a portion of southeastern Hillsborough County. Always approachable, Putnam could — and still can — disagree without being disagreeable, a vanishing skill in today's politics.
In 2010, Putnam returned to Florida and won the first of two terms as the state's commissioner of agriculture. His family interests in cattle and citrus give him a strong grasp of agricultural issues, and he has focused on areas ranging from promoting exports to fighting citrus greening. His influence has stretched far beyond crops and cattle to areas such as water policy, energy and school nutrition. He has supported Everglades restoration efforts, pushed legislation that cracked down on predatory practices by nonprofits and their telemarketing arms, and urged the state to acknowledge the abuses that took place over decades at a closed boys reform school.
A strong supporter of gun rights, Putnam legitimately has been criticized for serious shortcomings in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' responsibilities regarding concealed weapon permits. But he has been engaged and relevant in virtually every important state issue.
Putnam acknowledges parents' frustration with the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. As governor, he says he would "return common sense to the classroom" by simplifying the Florida Standards. He advocates for more vocational and technical training in middle schools and high schools while recognizing the state's universities need to climb in national rankings. He opposes any expansion of offshore drilling and supports investing in infrastructure.
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DeSantis, 39, has an eye-catching resume: Yale undergraduate degree, Harvard law degree, six years in the Navy where he was a JAG officer and six years in the U.S. House. Yet it's unclear what's below the surface. Representing a conservative district along the northeast coast, he aligned himself with the tea party movement and is one of the founders of the Freedom Caucus. He predictably supports term limits for Congress and Trump's border wall, opposes abortion rights and has regularly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
To his credit, DeSantis voted for an unsuccessful amendment to the farm bill this year that would have wound down government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. But on state issues, DeSantis is virtually a blank slate and has provided no vision for how he would guide Florida as governor. A Fox News debate with Putnam focused on federal issues, and his campaign website features no state policy positions.
A candidate for governor of the nation's third-largest state should offer voters more than a flashy resume, predictable sound bites and an embrace from the president. Putnam has a deep understanding of Florida, a firm grasp of state issues and a vision for the future that DeSantis cannot match. His conservative credentials are well-established, and he would have the broader appeal in the general election.
In the Republican primary for governor of Florida, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Adam Putnam.