TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Once Florida’s presumed Republican nominee for governor, the state’s agriculture commissioner is struggling to shake off a series of mistakes by his agency while he works to rebound from the president’s endorsement of his rival.
In the past few months, Adam Putnam’s agency has made headlines time and again for problems with concealed weapons permits, a roller coaster crash and a wildfire sparked by a controlled burn.
The problems prompted his opponent in the Aug. 28 primary, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, to say Putnam isn’t a leader. And Democrats have had a field day, issuing press releases on the issues almost daily.
The mistakes come at a crucial time for the former front-runner, but in the year when politics are all about President Donald Trump, voter reaction could be muted.
“None of that matters,” Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson said. “The Republican base has stopped caring about every other issue except Donald Trump.”
That isn’t altogether good news for Putnam, who had been leading in polls until June, when Trump endorsed DeSantis. Within the state, current term-limited Gov. Rick Scott has displayed a reluctance to weigh in on the race as he challenges Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Whatever the influence on voters, the news about his agency’s problems has forced Putnam to deal with issues outside his campaign.
In the past two months, Putnam has endured news stories about problems with concealed weapons permits. The first was after The Tampa Bay Times discovered an inspector general’s report on an employee who failed to complete national background checks between 2016 and 2017. The employee was fired and 291 permits had to be revoked.
Separately, inspector general’s reports dating back to 2012 showed that 48 employees made mistakes issuing concealed weapons permits and armed security guard licenses, in some cases not even looking at the applications before approving them.
Then, in July, a Daytona Beach roller coaster derailed and injured nine people, including two who fell to the ground. Putnam’s agency was responsible for inspecting the ride, and the state Democratic Party has repeatedly cast blame on the commissioner.
Also in July, WFTV reported that dozens of grocery stores in central Florida hadn’t been inspected in more than a year, as required by law. Putnam’s agency is responsible for those inspections.
And when a wildfire destroyed 36 homes in Eastpoint in June, Putnam had to break the news that it was caused a controlled burn that grew out of control. A contractor hired by another state agency was managing the burn, but Putnam’s agency was tasked with investigating it and Putnam’s name was in the headlines as media reported on the mistake.
The concealed weapons problems came up during the first debate between DeSantis and Putnam.
“He didn’t act like a leader because he covered it up. It was discovered by the media,” DeSantis said. “I believe in transparent leadership. Yes, there are going to be things that happen at an agency. You have to hold people accountable, but then you have to level with your constituents and be honest about what happened.”
Nearly two months after the first concealed weapons permit story broke, Democrats were still holding media conference calls to try to keep the issue in the news.
“The level of mismanagement and incompetence and negligence that we’ve seen at Adam Putnam’s Department of Agriculture has been horrifying,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz on a call set up by the Florida Democratic Party.
Putnam dismissed the criticism as more about politics than anything else.
“It’s not affecting the campaign. People see it for what it is: It’s a political stunt,” Putnam said recently. “It’s just election year politics. It’s part of it. I’m a big boy, and I can handle it.”
And Putnam supporters say he can’t be blamed for every mistake made by the agency with 4,000 employees.
“I’ve managed many people in my life. I used to work at UPS for 30 years,” said Larry Sessions, a 63-year-old farmer from Like Oak and a Putnam supporter. “Somebody can screw up, and yes I’m responsible when they screw up, but it’s my job to fix that problem, and I think he’s gone about it the right way and tried to fix it. He can’t help when somebody screws up.”
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