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Democrats may lose agriculture post

A day after applying, Commissioner Bob Crawford is offered a job as the director of the Department of Citrus.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford is being offered one of the most lucrative jobs in state government, a move Democrats are calling a political payback.

Crawford, a Democrat, has been in his party's crosshairs for two years because he supported Republican Jeb Bush for governor in 1998 and George W. Bush for president this year.

Now, a commission dominated by Gov. Bush's appointees has unanimously asked Crawford to head the Department of Citrus, which paid its last executive director $237,270 a year.

That's about twice as much as Crawford, the other Florida Cabinet members and Gov. Jeb Bush make. Crawford, one of Florida's longest-serving statewide politicians, has a net worth of nearly $2-million.

The Citrus Department oversees citrus marketing and is financed by a tax that growers pay on each box harvested.

Crawford is a soft-spoken, telegenic politician who chooses his positions carefully. Most recently, he made news as Gov. Bush's stand-in on the state Elections Canvassing Commission, which certified vote totals that awarded Florida to George W. Bush during the state's post-election recount controversy.

Crawford, who is a few years away from a 30-year career in state government, appears likely to take the Citrus Department job. He would be forced out of his current post in two years by the state's term limits law.

Crawford's departure would leave Gov. Bush to appoint a new Agriculture Commissioner. Bush likely would appoint a Republican, leaving Florida's six-member Cabinet with just one Democrat: Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

When Bush took office two years ago, Florida's elected Cabinet had three Democrats and three Republicans. Besides Crawford's impending departure, Democrats lost Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, who is moving to the U.S. Senate.

Three Republicans have been mentioned as possible replacements for the 52-year-old Crawford: Secretary of State Katherine Harris and state Sens. Charles Bronson, R-Satellite Beach, and John Laurent, R-Bartow. All are millionaires with holdings in the cattle and citrus industries.

Both Laurent and Bronson said Tuesday they have met with Gov. Bush to say they are interested in the job. Harris "hasn't been asked yet," said her spokesman, Ben McKay.

"If somebody offers her that job or any other job, she would give it due consideration," McKay said.

Laurent, a legislator since 1990, has deep ties to Crawford. The two have been friends since high school and have been involved in joint business ventures over many years, including owning a private plane together.

In this year's special legislative session, it was Laurent who made the motion in a Senate committee to have the Legislature name a set of electors pledged to George W. Bush.

Bronson, a wealthy lawmaker who likes to call himself "just a cowboy from Kissimmee," planned to run for Agriculture Commissioner in 2002.

Crawford's move toward the Citrus Department job was swift: He applied Monday, and the state's Citrus Commission voted Tuesday to offer him the position. The official salary range for the post is $90,000 to $290,000. In a statement Tuesday, Crawford said he was "honored" to be offered the job, and looked forward to discussing it further.

Thirty-two others have applied as well, including one Tampa man, Ben Roberts Produce manager Thomas Howell.

At a meeting in Lakeland Tuesday, the 12-member citrus commission debated offering the job to Crawford.

Commissioner Christopher Gargano said Crawford's government experience will serve citrus growers well. But commissioner Rex McPherson complained: "Here we're getting ready to hire somebody and I haven't had the first word from him."

Crawford served 14 years in the Legislature. He was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 1990 and re-elected subsequently.

The outgoing Department of Citrus director, Daniel Santangelo, resigned Nov. 30 after an accounting investigation found improprieties in the department. Santangelo denied any wrongdoing.

One Democrat has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Crawford: Rick Dantzler, a former state lawmaker who ran as former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay's running mate against Bush in 1998.

But Dantzler said Tuesday he hasn't given the idea much thought because he thinks it is unlikely Bush would pick a Democrat for the Cabinet post.

"For Jeb to appoint a Democrat would be unconventional," Dantzler said. "I'm seriously considering running (for agriculture commissioner) in 2002."

Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe said Bush -- who asked for bipartisan cooperation in an address to Floridians Monday night -- has the chance to show he means what he says by considering a Democrat to replace Crawford.

Poe said Crawford is "obviously qualified" for the Citrus Department job, but said the move is political.

"I think it just shows that political paybacks can be lucrative," Poe said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

The governor and the cabinet

If Gov. Bush names a Republican to replace Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, the GOP would have 6-1 majority among the governor and Cabinet. In Florida, those seven people are elected statewide. As a group they help set policy in education and run a number of state agencies that do everything from licensing drivers to collecting taxes to buying land.

After the November elections, there were two Democrats and five Republicans.

The Democrats: Crawford and Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

The Republicans: Secretary of State Katherine Harris; Comptroller Bob Milligan; Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher; Education Commissioner Charlie Crist; Gov. Jeb Bush.

Under a voter initiative passed in 1998, three of the six positions will be eliminated in 2002. The secretary of state's office will be abolished, the comptroller and treasurer will be combined into one job, and the education commissioner will be appointed by the governor.

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