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Following Footsteps

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  • | 9:05 a.m. September 17, 2010
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When it comes to getting a lot done early in life, Adam Putnam, vying to be the first U.S. congressman to be elected agriculture commissioner of Florida, has a lot in common with Doyle Conner.

A Democrat, Conner was only 31 when elected as the state's seventh agriculture commissioner nearly 40 years ago. A fifth generation Floridian, Putnam, R-Bartow, is 36.

Conner has Putnam beat in the Florida House, too, where the former was elected at the age of 21 while still a student at the University of Florida. Putnam, also a Gator, was elected to the Florida house when he was 22.

“I've sort of been following in his footsteps,” says Putnam about Conner, who was also the youngest legislator and became the youngest Florida House Speaker at 28.

Putnam became one of the youngest U.S. congressmen in history when he was elected to represent the 12th District at 26 and began serving in January 2001. The district includes most of Polk County and parts of Hillsborough and Osceola counties.

Despite the youthful success, don't expect this rank-and-file redheaded Republican to become a Democrat like Conner, or even an independent.

Putnam has deep conservative roots. They are planted in his family's 6,800-acre citrus farm and cattle ranch in Polk County, a well-known breeding ground not just for cows, but also Florida politicians.

A solidly middle-of-the-pack Republican according to the GovTrack Web site “ideometer,” Putnam was elected by his peers in the 110th Congress to chair the Republican Conference, the GOP's third highest leadership post. Before that, Putnam chaired the Republican Policy Committee. He also sits on the House Financial Services Committee.

Public service is in Putnam's family tree, though one has to go back a few branches. “My family wasn't terribly political,” says the five-term congressman.

But according to family lore, Putnam can claim as ancestors Gen. Israel “Old Put” Putnam and Lt. Col. Rufus Putnam. Both Putnams were Revolutionary War heroes of the Continental Army.

Gen. Putnam is credited in the book “1776” as a hero of Boston's famous Battle of Bunker Hill. Rufus Putnam, a cousin to the general and also a farmer, figured out how to engineer large cannons — the guns of Fort Ticonderoga — up to the Heights of Dorchester overlooking Boston Harbor without the British discovering the plan. The subsequent bombardment surprised the British and forced them to flee.

Rufus Putnam is also known as the “godfather of Ohio,” having been the first to survey much of the state. Many Putnam counties in the country, including the one in Ohio, are named for one or the other of the war heroes, but not Florida's.

Putnam's Gift

After 10 years in Washington, the father of three girls (7, 8 and 9) and a four-year-old boy, Putnam says he's now ready to be closer to wife Melissa and his family at their ranch near Bartow.

“It's therapeutic now to get off the plane from Washington and get out to the groves and decompress,” Putnam adds.

At the ranch with the kids, he says he likes to “take them out and let them see the harvesting crews and help them understand where it all comes from and where it all goes.”

Putnam, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in food and resource economics, learned much about farming and ranching from his father and brothers. He says they have a gift for knowing when trees are hungry and need potassium or minor elements.

But the congressman says his early involvement in the 4-H club and Future Farmers of America (FFA) helped developed his passion. “My gift,” he says, “was to communicate to people to persuade them and adopt policies that were good for agriculture.”

And it was Putnam's involvement in 4-H (head, heart, hands, health) and FFA that also led him to understand how politics might shape his family's and his community's future.

“It was a chance to interact with legislators and congressmen,” Putnam says. “Regardless of how good a farmer you were, it was your own government that could make decisions, and put you out of business.”

Now Putnam, who entered the race early in February 2009, could become what some jokingly call “farmer-in-chief.”

That impression is not lost on Putnam. “It's a constant education process to remind people it's part of the cabinet,” says Putnam.

He notes that urban voters aren't always familiar with not only the agriculture issues, but also may not know about the consumer protection side of the department.

Moderate side

In Washington, Putnam focused much of his attention on agriculture and consumer issues, including a bipartisan food safety reform bill that found its way into food safety legislation that was passed.

Showing he has a moderate side, Putnam is also pushing a platform calling for healthier eating in poor areas as part of an effort to improve access to fresh fruit and vegetables at farmers' markets.

And Putnam is also advocating more emphasis on renewable energy. So much so that the Florida Feedstock Growers Association, which grows crops for use in creating biofuels, endorsed Putnam last month over his Democratic opponent, Scott Maddox.

That association is chaired by Bill Vasden, Jr., a Hendry county farmer and a supporter of Democrat Alex Sink for governor, who comes from a North Carolina farm family. Sink supports Maddox.

Vasden says he wasn't aware Sink endorsed Maddox, but it was an easy choice for his group to back Putnam.

“Adam sought out our group,” says Vasden. “Before he endorsed us, well before we endorsed him, he took it upon himself to make sure biofuel crops were safe for Florida farms.”

Putnam was the keynote speaker at the group's recent annual meeting. As for Maddox, the former mayor of Tallahassee, Vasden admits, “We simply don't know much about him.”

Some big issues on Putnam's agenda relate to water and the burdens being placed on farmers and public utilities by proposed federal numeric nutrient criteria.

Those rules are being pushed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from a settlement with environmental groups. Current Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson says the rules are so inflexible that it could destroy the state's $103 billion agriculture industry. Putnam intends to make sure that doesn't happen, and he sees “a new detente between agriculture and the environmental community” in the offing.

Aside from issues and the name recognition that comes with being a five-term congressman, Putnam has a large advantage over his opponents, especially Maddox: Putnam has $2.8 million in contributions, of which he's only spent $350,000 so far, according to state elections records.

Plus, Putnam, in his effort to channel Doyle Conner, isn't above having some youthful fun.

For example, though he's fully aware it's election season, Putnam managed to combine his passion for politics with his love for Florida Gators football Sept. 11. In fact, Putnam hosted an open tailgate party next to the stadium at the Gators' game against the University of South Florida that day for his supporters.

Ever the country boy at heart, Putnam says, “Fall's always the best — it's pickin', football and huntin' season.”


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