By Dara Kam and Lloyd Dunkelberger
The News Service of Florida
The Republican’s entree into the race to succeed Gov. Rick Scott, forced to leave office next year because of term limits, was little more than a formality. Putnam, a former congressman who has served in the Cabinet post since getting elected in 2010, has long been considered a GOP favorite for next year’s gubernatorial nomination.
In a statement released Monday, Putnam indicated he intends to make a formal announcement later this month in his hometown of Bartow.
“I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world because I get to call Florida home. It’s our responsibility as Floridians to keep our economy at work, to increase access to high-quality education, to fiercely protect our personal freedoms, to keep our state safe, and to welcome our veterans home with open arms,” he said.
Putnam filed his campaign papers Monday with the state Division of Elections, a day before former Congresswoman Gwen Graham of Tallahassee is expected to announce her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for governor at Miami Carol City Park.
Putnam, 42, served for a decade in Congress before his election to the state Cabinet as commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. Prior to his stint in Washington, Putnam served in the Florida House of Representatives.
Throughout his political career, Putnam — a fifth-generation Floridian and a scion of a cattle and citrus family — earned a reputation as a straight-talking and affable Republican widely respected in the halls of the Capitol.
“We’ve been awaiting this announcement since about 2003,” joked Democratic political consultant Steve Schale. “For all of the arguments among Republicans that he’s a career politician or has a moderate voting record in Congress, you have to consider him to be the frontrunner on the GOP side at this time.”
Putnam’s made an early start on amassing a campaign war chest. His “Florida Grown” political committee collected more than $1 million in March, and had $7.7 million in cash on hand as of March 31, according to the Division of Elections website.
During his tenure as agriculture commissioner, Putnam’s office has been faced with the devastating impact of citrus greening, which has caused orange production to plummet. Putnam has also highlighted the need to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren, and his office has aggressively used the “Fresh from Florida” marketing program to highlight the state’s produce industry.
Putnam is the first big-name Republican to announce a bid for governor. Others who have been mentioned as possible candidates include Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who said earlier this year he was mulling a gubernatorial campaign.
Perhaps in anticipation of his gubernatorial race, Putnam recently bashed the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, also a favorite target of President Donald Trump. Putnam wrote to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about the need to investigate Mexico for unfair trade practices — dumping fruits and vegetables on the U.S. market — to the detriment of Florida farmers.
“These unfair trade practices have resulted in the continued decline of domestic production of these crops, which play such an important role in our diets and ensure the proper nutrition and development of Americans of all ages,” Putnam wrote.
Putnam easily won his two races for agriculture commissioner, receiving 55.9 percent of the vote in 2010 and 58.7 percent in 2014.
“I was surprised how much he pivoted toward Trump this last election, which means to me he’s concerned about his right flank,” Schale said. “I’ve always liked him personally. He’s a much better retail politician than Gov. Scott is. Who knows what these things look like a year from now, but at least on their side he’s the frontrunner.”
Apart from the financial support Putnam is already garnering from industries such as agriculture and utilities, the boyish-looking 42-year-old has spent more than two decades in public service, making him a formidable candidate in either a primary or general election battle.
Graham, 54, is the daughter of Bob Graham, the popular two-term governor and three-term U.S. senator from Florida.
As a one-term former congressional member from a largely rural North Florida district, Graham would normally face long odds in raising her statewide profile. But the location of her announcement underscores her unique advantage in the race.
Graham will launch her campaign in a city park next door to Miami Carol City Senior High School, where her father began his “workdays” in 1974, teaching a civics course at the school while he was in the state Senate.
Bob Graham, who left the U.S. Senate in January 2005, performed more than 400 workdays during his lengthy political career. His daughter continued the tradition when she served in Congress representing Tallahassee and a portion of the Florida Panhandle.
Gwen Graham was elected to Congress in 2014, narrowly defeating U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. She declined to seek re-election last year after a court-mandated redistricting plan reshaped her district into a Republican bastion.
Graham’s announcement has been widely expected and may have come earlier. But she delayed her decision as her husband, Stephen Hurm, recovered from cancer treatments.
After leaving Congress in January, Graham has kept up her criticism of the Republican establishment in Tallahassee, hitting Scott and the GOP legislative leaders for “wasting time fighting each other.”
She recently slammed Trump’s executive order that could open up Florida to off-shore oil and gas drilling. She said Florida beaches should not be exposed to another BP-type oil spill.
“Democrats must stand up to Trump and fight to permanently ban drilling off our beaches,” she said.
Graham will join a Democratic field that already includes Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Christopher King. Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine are also considering the race.
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