Oil drilling at center of Agriculture Commissioner race

09/14/10 Kate Bradshaw
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It might not be the first statewide race that comes to mind this year, but the contest for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services has gotten competitive. Both major-party candidates appeared at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting today, where everything from immigration to offshore drilling seeped into the discussion.

US Representative Adam Putnam, a Republican from Polk County and former Tallahassee mayor Scott Maddox, a Democrat, are vying to succeed Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. Putnam said while many view agriculture as quaint, it’s still a vital component of the state’s economy, and is still the state’s second biggest industry.

Maddox agreed, and highlighted the cabinet position’s role in protecting consumers.

The state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services is one of three official cabinet positions. The other two are attorney general and chief financial officer. One might wonder why Florida voters have to choose an agriculture commissioner every four years rather than let the governor appoint one. Putnam said it’s about the balance of power.

Unlike most statewide races this year, the two actually agreed on a few things, especially food safety and consumer protection issues. Both even said they’re in favor of the Agriculture jobs act of 2009, which, if passed, would aim to improve working conditions for undocumented agriculture workers. Maddox told the audience such legislation is only fair.

Putnam, who has generally been in step with the Republican Party on immigration, said he wants to see a guest worker program.

A key difference between the two seems to be offshore drilling, though it’s unclear how directly the ag commissioner would have to deal with issues stemming from the practice. Current ag commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican, is against it. Maddox told WMNF that, unlike Putnam, he’s opposed drilling for some time.

Just four days after the explosion at Deepwater Horizon, Putnam was quoted in the Panama City News-Herald saying he supported offshore oil exploration, especially in areas well offshore. His campaign told the web site PolitiFact that he was quoted well before the extent of the disaster was known. Another thing they disagreed on was how to regulate the phosphate industry. Maddox said while the industry is important, protecting Florida’s environment is paramount.

Putnam, who represents a sizable chunk of phosphate country, disagreed.

While many of the races on the November 2nd ballot have impassioned voters divided along party lines, this might not be one of them. Tiger Bay Club Member Tammy Simms-Powel said she came here thinking Maddox had her full support, but now she’s not so sure.

But St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, a Democrat, says he’s sticking with his party on this one.

While ag commissioner may be further down the ballot than US Senator and Governor, records show that running for the seat isn’t exactly cheap. According to the Pinellas County supervisor of elections web site, Republican Putnam has raised more than two million dollars since January of last year, while Democrat Scott Maddox has more than 717,000 in contributions so far. Two others are running for ag commissioner. These are tea party candidate Ira Chester and Thad Hamilton, who is running without party affiliation.

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