By: Nancy Smith Sunshine State News
It feels as if conservative Adam Putnam is the hottest ticket in the liberal Florida press.
And I don’t mean sexy hottest or any kind of good hottest.
I mean the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services is fighting a raging forest fire.
Since February, Putnam, Republican candidate for governor has been slapped for supporting the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association; watched as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students boycotted Publix for its $670,000 donation to his campaign; and was forced to defend his actions after a staffer in his Division of Licensing issued 291 concealed weapons permits without reviewing the background checks.
Never mind that Putnam called in the inspector general as soon as he became aware of what happened, or that the employee was fired and the permits revoked immediately. Or that none of the 291 applicants could have purchased a gun anyway.
All of it together, headline after headline, was a chance to distract and dissuade voters from backing the man who was the Republican frontrunner in the governor’s race — the candidate polls say Democrats should fear most in November.
“Ron DeSantis? Florida Democrats believe they can beat him off with a wet noodle,” Washington-based political consultant A. Ferris Guiletti told me earlier this week. U.S. Rep. DeSantis of Palm Coast is Putnam’s chief primary competition.
Putnam’s biggest problem of the moment is, he supports President Trump’s policies, just as DeSantis does. But the president’s endorsement went to DeSantis. And ever since, DeSantis has been surging among Florida’s GOP base.
“You keep the news negative, you put the candidate on the defensive and he doesn’t get a chance to get his message out,” Guiletti said. “That’s what the Democrats are doing to Putnam. Push him down, keep him down. It’s a strategy almost as old as our nation is.”
Maybe that’s true.
Maybe we do need to give him a chance to talk about his own agenda.
So, this time, instead of treading old ground, asking the candidate to defend himself on issues he wore out long ago, Sunshine State News asked Putnam to submit to an interview, to explain through a series of answers to our questions, his vision for Florida, his priorities, why voters should choose him and what he wants his legacy to be.
I conducted the interview by telephone earlier in the week and transcribed it without edit. Included within the copy on this page is one of Putnam’s campaign videos — my selection, not his. I’m hoping a video of the candidate on his 10-day bus tour through Florida’s heartland will give you a better sense of his presence.
What is your vision for the future of Florida and what do you mean by Florida first?
AP: Well, we know that people bringing their families to visit. And we know that Florida is a place that people reward themselves with for a life spent someplace else. They’ve raised their families, they’ve sold their businesses and they’ve moved to Florida. It’s the reward that they believe they’ve earned. And as a fifth generation Floridian I’m proud of the fact that so many people put Florida on their bucket list. But my vision is that Florida will be more than a place to visit and more than a place to retire. It will be the launch pad for the American dream — so we will have the type of economic opportunities that keep our young people in Florida after they’ve graduated and start their businesses here and grow their businesses here and raise their families here. And we will be a magnet for talent from all over the world. My vision for Florida is that we will have a diverse economy that is innovative and builds on our strength of tourism and agriculture and construction. And it expands beyond those but not at the expense of those. And my vision for Florida is that we will be second to none in workforce development education, as well as our existing world-class research universities.
As governor, what will your top priorities be, and why are they your top priorities?
AP: Putting Florida jobs first means that we have to re-orient education and workforce development. And I’ve seen firsthand, as a product of our public schools and someone whose four children are in our public schools, I’ve seen how the changes we’ve made over the years under Republican leadership have improved the opportunities that young people have. But one area I’m firmly convinced we are not getting right is in workforce development. Right now, our system is forcing 100 percent of our students into one funnel. And the guidance counselors and the whole system says to our students that if you do anything but end up with a four-year university degree, you’re going to be a failure in life. The degree that you get isn’t necessarily the one you want or even one you can use in this economy. It isn’t the only path to success in America. And I believe that’s wrong and I will, as governor, restore to our high school- and our middle school-curriculum vocational and technical education — so that we are preparing all of our students to be successful, not just our university-bound students. We also have to de-stigmatize many of these careers that pay better than many careers that have traditionally required a four-year university degree. So, whether it’s construction trades, or software engineers, nurses, aviation, aerospace or boat repair, these are all jobs that are in short supply and all pay above the average wage in the state of Florida. Nursing has been the No. 1 job vacancy in Florida for over a decade. Why aren’t we graduating high school students who have a CNA degree and are ready to go get a job as a nursing assistant, rather than getting student loans? They get the job, they work during the day, they go to school at a state college and get their bachelor’s in nursing; it’s close to home and affordable and flexible with their life. You’re going to produce a group of people who are helping Florida, that meet the needs of our economy and diversify our economy. So, workforce development is key to economic diversity. Workforce development is key to raising average wages. And workforce development is key to rebuilding the middle class.
What sets you apart from the rest of the candidates? Why should voters choose you? I’m really interested here in how you see the difference between yourself and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. What makes you more qualified than he is to be governor?
AP: Simply put, I know Florida best and I have always put Florida first. It is apparent that he does not know or understand, and based on his public remarks and his debate, he hasn’t put a lot of thought into Florida issues. Washington is not going to solve our problems, and if you are going to be the governor of Florida, you need to know the difference between a Hillsborough County school district, which is one of the largest in the nation, and a Hamilton County school district, which has two schools in the entire county. So, I believe the fact that I can go from Perdido Key to Key West without a map or GPS, that I understand the regional needs of our state and that I am more focused on Washington County than on Washington, D.C. and more on St. Petersburg, Florida than on St. Petersburg, Russia is an enormous difference between me and the congressman. I believe voters deserve to have a governor who has been specific in putting out a vision and an agenda. And I’ve done that, with a ‘family first’ agenda, a ‘jobs first’ agenda, a ‘secure Florida first’ agenda, as well as an agenda for our military and veterans.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as a natural successor to Gov. Scott. Why do you say that?
AP: Well, I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with Rick Scott for the last seven years. He’s been … Gov. Scott has been … an extraordinary turn-around CEO. And, while we have cut taxes every year, and our credit and bond ratings have been upgraded and we have created a business climate that’s created a million-and-a-half new jobs in 7 and a half years, and taken our unemployment rate from over 11 percent to under 4 percent, I have seen and been a partner on this Cabinet with the governor and with the Legislature to make Florida the envy of the nation. And I know that the next phase of that trajectory is to now make workforce development our priority so that we are keeping our graduates in Florida to launch their careers, and in the process, you’re going to raise average wages while keeping the overall employment rate low.
Many have said this race has been overly focused on national and federal issues. Would you agree with that?
AP: Absolutely. This is the third largest state in the country. We’ve now surpassed a trillion-dollar economy. If we were a country, we’d be the 17th largest in the world, and so it really does matter whether you know Florida issues, important issues. Whether they are glamorous enough to get you on the TV news is irrelevant. They are important to the future of Florida. And Washington is not going to solve our problems, and so you do need to understand how we are going to make our schools better, and what’s going on in our schools now. I see that in my own four children who are in schools, and I’ve lived it as product of Florida schools. You must understand how special our natural places are by having to tube down the Suwannee and tube down the Ichetucknee and fish in Charlotte Harbor to understand how we are going to fix our long-term natural resource issues. If a governor’s race isn’t about the future of the state that you want to lead, then our priorities are sorely misplaced. This should be a battle of ideas about the future of Florida. And it should be specific. And it should be not only rooted in Florida values, but a Florida Vision and a Florida agenda to put those values into action.
You say you’re proud of having a grass-roots-driven campaign. Why do you think grass-roots is so important?
AP: Fundamentally, I believe in my bones that people are unnerved at how rapidly technology and forces that seem beyond their control are changing every aspect of their lives, including politics and how they get information and how they hear from candidates. So, what hasn’t changed is their desire to build a relationship with someone who is seeking to lead them in public office. I’ve watched grass-roots campaigns all my life in Florida. And I’ve seen how both Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush in different campaigns at different times harnessed the power of grass roots. I saw how President Trump harnessed the power of grass roots in 2016. When I was on back roads in Suwannee County, when people had hand-painted signs on their hay barns, I knew something unique was going on. That’s why, from Day One, I made a commitment that this will be, fundamentally, a grass-roots campaign. From the day I announced, in my hometown, in front of 2,000 people who weren’t even all related to me, I have made grass roots a top priority. And I believe the counties and the communities that feel like they have been left behind need to feel that they have someone fighting for them, can find them without a map and can understand what their high school mascot is, what the biggest employer in their community is, assure their bright future by strengthening our state’s economy.
What kind of support and endorsements have you received?
AP: Well, I’m most proud of having nearly 50 Florida Sheriffs’ endorsements. As you know, there are only sixty-six sheriffs who are elected. I think we are at 47 right now, with another couple heading our way. I’m obviously thrilled to have the support of my good friend (Attorney General) Pam Bondi and the support of Speaker (Richard) Corcoran. But, I’ve also got the support of firefighters and the FOP and other first responders, the PBA, the Florida Family Policy Council. All of my endorsements are Florida businesses, Florida families and Florida voters. They reinforce my core theme of this campaign, which is to put Florida first. And that’s why I’m most proud that my surrogates and my supporters and those who’ve endorsed me are all Floridians. And I believe that is the difference-maker in a campaign that has seen its fair share of out-of-state celebrities buzz in and then buzz right back out without any real accountability for the future of our state.
How do you see the five Democratic candidates for governor?
AP: You know, their campaigns haven’t been Florida-focused either. They’re really rallying behind an anti-Trump message and a burning resistance movement that’s not focused on a plan for the future of Florida. It’s attempting to nationalize the race and I don’t believe that Florida’s future ought to be just another data point in some national trend. Floridians need to chart the course of Florida. People who want to lead Florida need to have a plan for Florida and I’m just not hearing it out of those candidates and the overwhelming amount of money flowing into the Democratic candidates is not coming from Floridians, its coming from out of state billionaires who are trying to hijack our elections in ’18 so they can influence the elections in 2020. It has nothing to do with making Florida a better place and that’s disappointing.
Last question: What do you want your legacy to be? And, please, add anything else here I haven’t covered or you want to mention.
AP: I would just say the state that put a man on the moon ought to be the state that is the launch pad for the American dream. And I would hope that my legacy is that, in addition to being a top-rated vacation destination and a top rated retirement destination, that we at the end of my time as governor will have diversified our economy by creating new jobs and new opportunities for Florida families and people to move to Florida, to not only reward themselves with Florida, but to be permanently invested in Florida by raising their children here, and by launching their businesses here. And that’s a very different thing. And so creating that economic diversity and most importantly developing the workforce is key to that economic diversity. It’s what I hope my legacy is, that every child, whether they attend university or not, will have an opportunity to stay in Florida and not feel the need to move away to find their piece of the American dream — because it’s right here in the Sunshine State.
I have offered Ron DeSantis, Putnam’s chief opponent and now the frontrunner in the polls, the same opportunity to interview with Sunshine State News. I hope he also will look at it as an opportunity.
Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] Twitter: @NancyLBSmith