Florida Politics

Oil and water: Clashes between Gov. Rick Scott, Adam Putnam roil state politics

Regular seating at a Cabinet meeting puts CFO Jeff Atwater between Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, far right, and Gov. Rick Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi is at the far left.
Regular seating at a Cabinet meeting puts CFO Jeff Atwater between Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, far right, and Gov. Rick Scott. Attorney General Pam Bondi is at the far left. AP

One is the governor and one wants to be.

That’s about the extent of the common ground between Gov. Rick Scott and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the odd couple in Florida politics.

As one of three elected Cabinet members, Putnam works with Scott to shape policy and supervise state agencies. While Scott fervently sticks to his message of more jobs, Putnam insists the state’s greatest long-term need is more water.

Like oil and water, the two men don’t mix. They no longer try to conceal their dislike for each other.

“They’re not exactly drinking buddies,” said lobbyist and Republican strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich.

Their clashes have become more frequent, and more trouble could be ahead as Putnam builds a political base in advance of what’s likely to be a long campaign to replace Scott in 2018.

Tensions between the two boiled over in June when Scott approved pay raises for driver license examiners and some state troopers but used his veto pen to reject Putnam’s request for $2,000 raises for state forestry firefighters who on average earn about $27,000 a year.

The sudden veto came after Scott ignored Putnam’s written request for a meeting to discuss it. Scott’s people said there was no time.

“I’m profoundly disappointed,” Putnam said.

But after repeated disagreements and staff-level clashes, Stipanovich said, Putnam should not have been surprised by Scott’s action.

“In every walk of life, relationships matter,” said the former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. “It matters whether you get the benefit of the doubt. The governor and agriculture commissioner don’t have a warm personal relationship.”

Undeterred, Putnam two weeks ago asked the Legislature to approve the firefighter raises next year — in effect daring Scott to veto it twice, which would antagonize senators still seething over Scott’s vetoes of their items.

“It’s a failure to communicate,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, whose own relationship with Scott has soured. “Adam didn’t have the opportunity to make his case, and now feelings are hurt.”

Troubles between Scott and Putnam surfaced soon after they both took office on the same day in January 2011.

Scott was determined to keep a campaign promise to ditch two airplanes used by state officials. That forced Putnam to drive to far-flung places while Scott soars above in his personal executive jet.

“It certainly presents some challenges,” Putnam said at the time. “But it is what it is.”

When Scott visits Miami for a jobs announcement, his sleek Cessna Citation has him there in less than an hour. When Putnam has to visit South Florida to talk about threats from citrus greening or giant land snails, he typically straps himself in his pickup truck for a seven-hour drive.

After many miles traveled, Scott and Putnam squared off again.

Scott, who was elected without the support of Florida’s law enforcement establishment, pushed a police consolidation plan in 2011. Putnam pushed back, defending the 266 sworn officers under his command as essential to Florida’s welfare.

When Scott made a surprise reversal to embrace Medicaid expansion in 2013, Putnam quickly voiced his opposition, calling Scott’s view “naive” and sending a message to the conservative wing of the Republican Party that Scott made a mistake.

“Adam gave the governor a pretty sharp elbow,” Stipanovich recalled, and that led to political speculation that Putnam might challenge Scott’s re-election.

He didn’t. But things went from bad to worse.

Last spring, in the wake of Scott’s decision to force Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey to retire, Putnam was Scott’s loudest critic, saying his staff was “misled” by Scott’s people about his intentions. Putnam led the push to hold agency heads more accountable in public.

Behind the scenes, Putnam earlier this year hired Meredith O’Rourke, a well-connected Republican, to be the chief fund-raiser for his political committee, Florida Grown. O’Rourke had held the same job at Scott’s committee, Let’s Get to Work, which the governor may keep as a springboard to run for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Scott and Putnam are both Republicans, but the similarities end there.

Putnam has a puckish style and peppers his talks with football analogies, often dressed in a denim shirt and jeans, a uniform that reflects his roots and his job.

The message-driven Scott is a career boardroom CEO with a formal manner, still finding his way on the political stage.

Scott, 63, spent much of his life in the Midwest building the nation’s largest for-profit hospital empire before he moved to Naples in 2003. A political unknown who barely met Florida’s seven-year residency requirement to run for governor, he used his lavish personal fortune to win by close margins in 2010 and again last year.

Putnam, 41, is a fifth-generation Floridian and proud Gator whose red hair and early political start earned him the nickname “Opie,” but he made people take him seriously.

Elected to the Legislature at 22 and to Congress at 26, he rose to No. 3 leader in the U.S. House GOP hierarchy before coming home in 2010 to win the agriculture job, positioning him as a serious contender to take Scott’s place in 2018.

“Different kinds of guys,” said Gaetz, a friend of Putnam’s who twice campaigned for Scott in the Panhandle, an area that was crucial to both Scott victories.

Gaetz recalled Scott as “very programmed” in a roomful of voters and called Putnam “natural. He wasn’t trying to sell anything.”

Scott and Putnam are conspicuously icy to each other in public settings, and their negative body language is obvious.

At the endless photo-ops at Cabinet meetings with students, teachers and even stray dogs, the two men rarely stand next to each other. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater conveniently sits between them in the Cabinet’s long-standing seating arrangement.

When Attorney General Pam Bondi lavished Scott with praise at a Cabinet meeting last week for the state’s improving employment numbers, Putnam, his lips pursed, stayed silent.

Some political insiders do not see obvious friction between Scott and Putnam.

“I have never gotten the sense that there’s any personal animus or a lack of collegiality. Zero,” said Chris Kise, a lawyer and lobbyist who was a member of Scott’s transition team and has contributed money to both men.

Putnam declined to be interviewed for this article. His office issued a statement that said: “The governor and I have enjoyed a positive and dynamic working relationship.”

There’s little upside for the ambitious Putnam to be seen antagonizing Scott’s supporters as he works to build a stronger statewide base of support.

In the past, Putnam sought to downplay their differences.

“I don’t believe that there is a strain in our ability to work with the governor and the rest of the Cabinet,” Putnam told the Herald/Times in February. “I’ve made it clear I didn’t approve of the way Jerry Bailey was treated. That’s one issue of dozens that I’ll continue to work with the governor on.”

When asked to comment for this story, Scott’s office issued a statement that said that he “has enjoyed working with Commissioner Putnam for the past 4 1/2 years to make Florida the best state for families to live their dreams.”

Asked for examples, Scott’s office cited their efforts to make it easier for military personnel to get concealed weapons licenses and a $10 million increase in a program for conservation easements, managed by Putnam’s agency, to protect diminishing farmland from commercial development.

That very conservation program was at the center of the latest clash between Scott and Putnam.

At a Cabinet meeting last Tuesday, Putnam outmaneuvered Scott in approving a $4.1 million easement to protect a century-old ranch in suburban Orlando.

Scott insisted that the state pay no more than 90 percent of the lower appraised value of the Kilbee Ranch in Seminole County and spoke of the need to protect taxpayers.

“That’s what I would do in my business life, and that’s what I think we should do for the taxpayer,” said Scott, hinting that Putnam wasn’t acting in the taxpayers’ best interest.

Putnam called Scott’s position “unrealistic” and contradictory to long-standing state policy on appraisals and said landowners deserve fair value for giving up some property rights.

Putnam’s persistence helped get Bondi to switch her vote, and Scott was on the short end of a 3-1 decision, a rare defeat for the governor, who controls the Cabinet agenda.

As the meeting ended, the two men quickly took off in opposite directions.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.