Opie's All Grown Up Now
Every political race Adam Putnam has run, it seems, has focused on his age. When he was 22 and running for the Florida Statehouse, with his mother laying out district maps on the kitchen table and his father creating campaign literature in front of the television, his 69-year-old opponent attacked him for trying to run from "the frat house to the statehouse" and used his sophomore-class high school yearbook photo in an advertisement. The cherubic redhead heard pretty much the same refrain when he ran for Congress in 2000. Even the national Republican Party was hesitant about backing such a young prospect. "I looked about 12," he jokes now. And he had the nickname to match: "Opie" was the favorite at the time. He then, well, graduated to President Bush's favorite moniker, "Red," and now, at 32, Putnam occasionally gets "Howdy Doody."
And yet, in this terrible political year for the GOP, Putnam is one Republican for whom "stay the course" has proved a winning strategy. Yes, he's still a youngster. He's not a household name, and he doesn't grab all the headlines, even back home in Florida. But having just won a fourth term by garnering 69 percent of the vote, Putnam is racing up the Capitol Hill pecking order. Republicans bumped him up again last month to chair of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 GOP position in the House, in effect the communications maestro behind Minority-Leader-to-be John Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt. Putnam was tapped to boost a beleaguered party. How well he does with that assignment may help determine the GOP's future. And it may have a major bearing on Adam Putnam's political future as well.
A state the size of Florida has no shortage of big-time politicians. And Florida has its share of metropolitan power circles around Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee. Putnam's roots aren't in any of those areas. No, he hails from Bartow in Polk County-that's east of Tampa and southwest of Orlando. As a fifth-generation Floridian, Putnam grew up in a family that runs a cattle ranch and a citrus farm. (He still gets hefty campaign donations from agriculture, and most of his personal worth of more than $2 million is tied to the family business.) And at the University of Florida, he was a food and resource economics major and spent a little time in college politics, but unlike many young Republicans-Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist-who have quickly risen through the ranks, he wasn't head of College Republicans or some other national political club. He was in "Florida for Jeb" and "Gators for Bush ," he says, and was involved in the statewide 4-H club. But "there is no political blood in my family," he notes.
His first experience with Washington politics was interning for hometown Republican Rep. Charles Canady, whose seat he now holds, during the summer before he graduated from college in 1995. Republicans were basking in the warm glow of the Gingrich revolution, and even though his car was broken into four times, Putnam loved the job, because he felt a need for young people to have their political voices heard. He'd been interested in the Florida legislature as a high schooler, so he decided to make his first run there, just a year out of the University of Florida. His father "was just silent for what seemed like an eternity" when he heard the news, but ultimately, Dad campaigned hard for him. Putnam was elected in a season when Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 122 years; before long, the young state rep was chairing the Agriculture Committee.