Age, experience at forefront of 12th District race
By BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000
BARTOW -- Fred Guess is exactly the kind of voter Adam Putnam needs to get elected to Congress -- a Democrat who often votes for Republicans.
Yet the retired citrus farmer says he will not support "the boy." He says Putnam, a 26-year-old Republican state representative, is too inexperienced.
"You've got to have some background and knowledge when you go to Washington," Guess says. "He has none."
The campaign in Florida's 12th Congressional District is fast becoming one of the most interesting and important in the nation. It pits a baby-faced, red-haired conservative barely old enough to serve in Congress against a gray-haired Ford dealer with three children and three grandchildren.
The campaign has raised an intriguing question about political credentials. Who is better qualified to serve in Congress? A two-term state legislator who just five years ago was a Capitol Hill intern? Or a 50-year-old community activist who has run a business for two decades but never held elective office?
The stakes are high.
Republicans now have a slim majority in the House, but many of their seats are considered up for grabs. Democrats are growing increasingly confident they will win the six seats necessary to regain control. In Florida alone, they could pick up two or three.
The 12th District, which includes most of Polk and the eastern portions of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, was considered a safe Republican seat in the hands of incumbent Charles Canady. But he is retiring to keep a term-limit pledge.
A few months ago, Putnam was regarded a shoo-in to keep the seat in GOP hands. He won the support of key Polk County leaders after former state Sen. Rick Dantzler, a Democrat, dropped out of the race.
But the car dealer, Mike Stedem, has surprised everyone with his aggressive fundraising. He raised nearly twice as much as Putnam in July and early August.
In his campaign, Stedem emphasizes his many years as a business and community leader, and tells audiences that the race isn't about age, it's about experience.
Putnam also talks about experience -- his four years in the Legislature and his lifetime in the farms of Central Florida. He says it's time for new blood in Washington.
"There's a place for young people in politics. I think it's important young people get more involved."
Rush Limbaugh country
As the young conservative walks into the studio at WWTK, a talk radio station in Sebring, he's in friendly territory. On the wall is a photo of Rush Limbaugh and a "Florida Victory 2000" card that shows the Bush brothers with their father.
Barry Foster, host of the morning talk show and a staff writer for a Sebring newspaper, welcomes the candidate and boasts that he has a Putnam for Congress bumper sticker on his truck. So much for journalistic objectivity.
"We're back for Round Two of the Barry Foster Show," he says into the microphone. "We have Adam Putnam in the studios this morning. Adam is making a run for Charles Canady's 12th District seat . . ."
Foster's first question goes right to the hot-button issue of the campaign: "Are you still the youngest member of the Legislature?"
Yes, Putnam replies, but, years ago, some were even younger. And Putnam says he and other young legislators have played a key role.
"People generally have lower expectations of young people, which allows you to sneak up on them," he says in his Polk County drawl.
If elected, Putnam will be the youngest member of the 107th Congress. The U.S. Constitution requires that House members be at least 25.
He gets asked so often about his youth that he begins speeches by diffusing the issue with humor. "I'm 26 -- but I look 13," he often says.
His most effective response is to bulldoze the generational doubts by showing off his knowledge of state and national issues. He speaks in a confident alphabet soup about NAFTA and OSHA and says the nation is at a crossroads.
"What I really see is a paradigm shift unlike any we've seen since the Second World War," he says as he drives through southern Polk County, occasionally taking both hands off the wheel to gesture.
His family roots here go back at least five generations. He grew up working on his family's citrus and cattle farms and still has a two-way radio in his Jeep Cherokee on the same frequency as the family farm. His radio call sign is "21" -- a family joke about his age when he was elected to the state Legislature.
He can endure the wisecracks about his age because he is so serious and focused. His favorite books are historical tomes. Asked what he reads for fun, he replies: "Hemingway."
When he was a congressional intern for Canady five years ago, he skipped the intern party scene so he could visit Civil War battlefields. He once drove from Washington to Delaware just because he was curious what it looked like.
"I'm not trying to say I was a prude or anything," the University of Florida graduate says. "The intern scene in Washington was no different than the scene in Gainesville. If I wanted that, I would have stayed in Gainesville."
'Show me the money!'
Every afternoon, Stedem sits in an office at his Bartow headquarters and dials for dollars. This is the most important room in a modern campaign, providing fuel for everything a candidate does.
The walls are covered with hand-written posters to inspire Stedem to ask for contributions.
"Show me the money!!"
"When can I expect your check?"
"The Pitch: I'm Mike Stedem . . . I'm going to win!!!"
Being a candidate is a new role for Stedem, but he says he has had decades of preparation. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of a car dealer. He was offered his dad's Ford dealership but decided to get out of Dan Stedem's shadow and start his own dealership in Florida.
He is known in Polk County not just for his F-150 pickups, but for his extensive community work. He started a program to rent inexpensive cars to people coming off welfare. He helped arrange a deal that rescued the Bartow hospital from financial ruin. He started a medical clinic in Fort Meade that serves the poor.
"I feel like I've had a blessed life," he says. "I need to give something back."
He is a deeply religious man who frequently quotes the Bible and closes his dealership on Sundays. "It's the Lord's day," he says.
Where Putnam is serious and focused, rarely straying from his campaign themes, Stedem is gregarious and surprisingly candid.
Asked why he's a Democrat, Stedem says, "All Democrats have a social conscience" but that only "some" Republicans do. He says Putnam is too focused on his own ambition. He says he once told Putnam that he was "way too stiff, way too opinionated."
Stedem and his dealership have won accolades for treating customers well. He says he has a listed home phone number so customers can call him with complaints. The car business, he says, has taught him some valuable lessons that apply in politics.
"You have to be careful that you're not preachy," he says as he strolls along a row of pickups on his lot. "You need to know your customer, you need to ask questions."
Just as Putnam fights the image that he is too young, Stedem must battle the stereotype of the car dealer.
"The problem with most dealers is they look at every customer as a new deer to kill. I don't. I look at every customer as an opportunity to plant a seed."
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 12th District, 52 percent to 39 percent, but the Democrats are conservative. They worry about gun control and say they dislike Big Government.
So it's odd that a key issue in the campaign is whether the biggest of the Big Government programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- can afford to keep writing checks to the conservatives who don't like Big Government.
Putnam says the first priority for the federal budget surplus should be to shore up those programs for long-term survival. He supports the Republican plan for Medicare prescription drug benefits, which would encourage insurance companies to offer competitive programs.
Putnam is anti-abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened. He is so conservative that he received the Christian Coalition's "Friend of the Family Award." He says employers should be able to fire workers because they are gay. He said employers -- like the Boy Scouts of America -- deserve the right "to protect their culture."
Stedem agrees with Putnam about using the budget surplus for Medicare and Social Security. But Stedem says the Republican drug plan is "a sham" because insurance companies say they do not want to provide the benefits. He prefers the Democratic plan that charges a monthly premium and has a cap on the out-of-pocket costs someone would have to pay.
Stedem says a woman should be able to choose whether to have an abortion, although he is personally opposed. He is liberal on many social issues. He says government should play an active role in helping the needy. He believes gay people deserve civil rights protections. "My life is about inclusion," he says.
Putnam has begun criticizing Stedem for raising money from labor unions and groups outside of Florida. He says Stedem is out of step with the conservative district.
"He is not a Central Florida Democrat," Putnam says. "He is more liberal."
Stedem and his supporters are ratcheting up their criticism of Putnam, reminding people that his only job has been as a professional politician.
Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader from Missouri, says Putnam isn't ready for Congress.
"He's young and hasn't had employment other than public service. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think you bring more to the table if you've had more life experiences."
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