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Lunch with Ernest

'Opie' is used to Congress

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published August 15, 2003

Adam Putnam, 29, holds a more significant place in the lives of Brandon area residents than he did in 2000, when he was first elected to Congress and became the youngest member of the House. Redistricting has made parts of eastern and southern Hillsborough a far more significant part of the Bartow native's district.

Over barbecue pork dinners at First Choice, we talked about his age, the subcommittee he chairs and the bar we both patronized as University of Florida students.

Pull up a chair and join us.

What kind of changes have occurred since the redistricting?

Obviously it changed the dynamic of the district. It's less of a rural district and a bit more suburban, and it certainly has put Hillsborough County much more on my radar screen in terms of getting over here more frequently and having case workers assigned exclusively to Hillsborough County.

What do you see as the primary concerns of this area?

Transportation is big, that's something from a federal role we can do something about. Education is always on everybody's mind, but that's less of an issue we can do something about. One of the things that's important to me and certainly important to the Brandon area as much as anybody is making sure CentCom and SOCom stay at MacDill. There's an awful lot of personnel living here, their children go to school here and they fall in love with the area and come back here after they retire from the military. As we approach a new round of base closures, I'll be working with other members of the delegation to make sure MacDill stays where it is or even grows in terms of its role.

Your family's business is citrus and cattle. Did you grow up herding cattle?

Probably the worst possible decade to be a kid in the citrus industry was the '80s when we kept having freezes. It wasn't a whole lot of fun to be out there working summers in the citrus industry pruning back dead limbs and planting new trees to replace the ones that had been killed the previous winter. That was not a lot of fun. The cattle side of the industry is a whole lot of fun. At least cattle have a little better personality than those trees.

How did those experiences shape the outlook you have now and the job you do now?

I think it keeps me pretty well grounded. There's an awful lot of this country that's two or three generations removed from the land. They lose sight of the fact that food just doesn't come from the grocery store and gas doesn't just come from the pump. There are still people every day who get up long before the sun comes up and don't go to bed until the sun goes down. A lot of the strength in this country and in the communities that make up this country come from people who work hard all day with their hands and they aren't terribly interested in a new BMW every year and could care less about what's offered at the latest shopping mall.

So what do you drive?

I have a '95 Jeep Cherokee with 160,000 miles on it. It stinks, the roof leaks.

When were you bitten by the political bug?

I would say high school. I was real involved in 4-H and I probably give that as much credit as anything for becoming politically minded. Nobody in my family was real political. I had always followed it. I love history.

Were you involved in student government at Florida?

A little bit. I was in the student Senate one year. I was in Blue Key (an honor society). I was pretty active on campus, but not as much in student government as some other people.

So as a congressman, can you do something about the closing of the Purple Porpoise (UF's longtime student hangout closed last December)?

We should have had it declared a historic landmark or something like that. I couldn't believe it. How in the world does that place go out of business?

What is the subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census?

Other than being the subcommittee with the longest name in Congress? We oughta bring our eyeball for efficiency to the names of some of the committees.

The bulk of the work is on the technology side of the jurisdiction. We spend a lot of time on cyber security issues. From a homeland security perspective, the physical targets have gotten all the attention, but if you think about the ease with which someone can infiltrate a computer network, they don't have to be over here, they don't have to have a whole lot of money behind them, but they can just as easily shut down a power-grid or manipulate the financial market.

How often were you told you were too young to run for Congress? And why didn't you listen?

I was probably told I was too young to run for the Legislature more than I was told I was too young to run for Congress. If I had a nickel for every time somebody says, "I have blank older than you are" - underwear, shoes, socks, ties, jackets, children, grandchildren - I could fund a Senate race. But that's part of the fun of it. It doesn't bother me at all. You kind of roll with it and use it to your advantage.

I guess in some ways you're more recognizable than some of the other members of Congress.

There's 435 House members. You come in with your freshman class and everyone is looking for a way to stand out or be recognized, be noticed. I never had any problems with that between being the youngest and looking like Opie.

So you see yourself being in Congress for a while?

I don't have any immediate plans to move on. I enjoy it, I've got a great district. After three years, I'm beginning to get my arms around the schedule, which is the most difficult part of the whole job. Finding a way to make time for your family, make time for your job. I feel like I'm getting a lot better.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Three-peat has an entirely different meaning in the Putnam household. He has 2-year-old and 1-year-old daughters who are 16 months apart, and a third on the way who will be 14 months younger than his closest sibling. Putnam calls them Irish triplets. When asked if Democrats make him so mad he wants to throw a mug across the aisle, Putnam noted the Florida delegation - Republicans and Democrats - works well together and often avoids the partisan politics that separate delegations from other large states such as California and Texas.

- Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section of the St. Petersburg Times. Lunch With Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. To suggest lunch partners, call Ernest at 226-3406 or e-mail hooper@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 14, 2003, 09:40:36]

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