By Arie Dekker - 07/07/08 05:37 PM EDT
Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) has plenty of experience addressing a crowd.
Putnam was a student at Bartow High School when he sensed Principal Ernie Cooper’s mounting discomfort backstage.
The audience at the Mr. and Mrs. Bartow High competition was growing restless as judges deliberated longer than planned. Putnam, who was helping backstage, said, “Mr. Cooper, would you like me to go out and talk to the audience while they wait?”
Having no other choice, Cooper introduced him to the audience.
“[Putnam] stepped right in to the mic, no notes, no nothing, and he did an excellent job — and got a round of applause at the end,” Cooper said. “It certainly calmed a very nervous principal in the background.”
In high school, Putnam was known for his ambition. He served as state president of the 4-H Club, president of the Key Club, student government vice president and editor in chief of the school yearbook. These résumé builders don’t include his membership in the Future Business Leaders of America Club, the National Honor Society, the Anchor Club or his help preparing football banners and prom decorations.
“A leader is only is as good as his followers,” Putnam wrote as his parting senior message in the school yearbook. “Leaders are not born, they are cultivated. … I have learned to become a good leader.”
Those skills have propelled him from one leadership role to another in college and throughout his political career.
Elected to the Florida House of Representatives right out of college and to the U.S. House at age 26, the now 33-year-old Putnam serves as the youngest-ever chairman of the House Republican Conference, a position that makes him third in line in the House Republican leadership.
“Adam has a deep understanding of this process,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, expressing expected praise for his younger leadership colleague. “And he communicates in a way that people understand.”
As the second-youngest lawmaker in Washington, Putnam looks the part, with his boyish, freckled face topped with a full mop of red hair.
“In a place of 435 [lawmakers] where everybody’s looking for a way to stand out, I never had that problem,” he said.
Putman first arrived in Washington for an internship in the summer of 1995. “Which was right after the [Republican] revolution, and presumably things were working at warp speed then,” Putnam said. “But even then, I thought, ‘Man, this town sure moves slow. I really think there’s a better opportunity to make a difference at home in Florida.’ ”
Though young, Putnam believed he was well-suited to serve the interests of Florida constituents. In addition to being at ease with public speaking, he was a fifth-generation Floridian who had just graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in food and resource economics. Having grown up working in his family’s orange groves, he was well-versed in what Florida farmers wanted.
Rick Weldon, associate professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida and Putnam’s academic adviser, said that as a student Putnam seemed to have a sense of what would be important to Florida voters down the road, which is why he took so many classes in environmental policy.
Weldon and other professors noted that Putnam had a gift for speaking his mind. Gary Fairchild, professor of food and resource economics, said, “[Putnam] is a fighter for what he believes is right and true, and he knows from whence he came.”
To illustrate, Fairchild described what he called a “magical” teaching moment instigated by Putnam in one of his classes. Playing devil’s advocate, Fairchild tried to get his students’ blood boiling by extolling the virtues of free trade over protectionism.
“All of a sudden, [Putnam] pipes up and says, ‘Wait just a damn minute — what you’re talking about is just plain wrong,’ ” recalled Fairchild.
Putnam explained to the class that he was a fifth-generation Florida farmer who knew firsthand the dangers of unrestricted trade to local farmers. He was interrupted, Fairchild said, by another student who said, “Wait just a damn minute yourself — I’m a fifth-generation vacuum salesman. We don’t get any government support.” And just like that, the class was embroiled in a heated debate.
“We had pandemonium,” Fairchild said. “It ended up being one of those beautiful teaching moments.”
Putnam was just as visible and successful in his college years as he was in junior high and high school. He left the university in 1995 as Outstanding Male Graduate of the Year.
Among Putnam’s family, friends and even grammar school teachers, no one has been surprised by his decision to go into politics, though few could have predicted the timing.
“I don’t think anybody thought I was going to do it at 22,” Putnam said. “I told my father that I was thinking of running for the state House [after returning from an internship in D.C.], and he was just dead silent for [what] seemed like forever.
“Finally I spoke up and said, ‘Don’t you have anything to say about that?’ ” Putnam recalled. “And he pulled his pipe out of his mouth, and he said, ‘I just don’t even know what to say. It’s like you just told me you were pregnant or something.’ ”
Putnam’s experience in his family’s citrus and cattle business taught him to be ready for sudden shifts in the environment, whether natural or political. He attributes much of his political success to good luck and timing.
“Politics is a lot like farming — you’re subject to a lot of winds, whether they’re political winds or Mother Nature’s winds, that can propel a career or wipe out a career,” Putnam said. “There have been several points in my career that have been very lucky breaks.”
To name a few, he began his career by running against an incumbent who abruptly decided not to seek reelection, granting Putnam an unexpected head start in a race for an open seat in the Florida legislature.
He won the seat at a time when Republicans took control of the Florida House for the first time in 140 years and when term limits began taking effect, giving him opportunities for leadership even as a freshman.
State Sen. Paula Dockery (R) entered the Florida legislature the same year as a 22-year-old Putnam, and the two became close friends, learning the ropes and fighting for votes together.
“They called us Opie and Aunt Bee,” Dockery said. “Our careers in the House were on a parallel course.”
Early in their service, they took on a tough property rights bill. Dockery said she and Putnam spent long hours analyzing case law and preparing arguments. She said Putnam was a very quick learner, and she gave him some of the more complicated cases to research. Then, just in time for the presentation of their bill on the state House floor, Dockery got laryngitis and was forced to hand over the whole presentation to Putnam.
“Back then he was very modest, yet he had this air about him [that he had unlimited potential],” Dockery said.
She said Putnam “sounded like a lawyer” on the House floor, effortlessly citing case law and delivering a masterful presentation. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Senior legislators would later comment that Putnam and Dockery handled the process like veteran members.
“This was our proudest moment,” Dockery said.
Putnam’s big break came when his congressman, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), adhered to his term-limit commitment, and no one senior to Putnam wanted his seat. So Putnam ran and won the seat, becoming the youngest U.S. congressman at the time.
Winning those races and advancing in leadership required more than just fortuitous timing. Putnam had to have the right combination of skills and ideas that appealed to voters.
“I mean, you can have great ideas, you can have passion and drive and vision,” he said, “but you also have to understand how to campaign, how to speak to people, how to convey that energy, how to communicate those ideas, how to reach the right people who are actually going to be in a position to vote for you.”
In Congress, Putnam’s energy has not waned. He made headlines when he challenged Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for flying to her home district in a large military plane. He backed down only after the House security chief said he had requested the plane for Pelosi’s security.
Since Democrats took over in 2006, Putnam has taken it upon himself to cheer up a deflated Republican Conference. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, “He puts together each week some of the more outrageous quotes from the other side” to lighten the mood at weekly conference meetings.
Putnam said he is still frustrated by the often slow pace of Washington. He said he misses the more lively and substantive discussions of the Florida legislature.
“There’s no real debate in Congress,” he said. “I mean, there are a series of speeches for and against a given issue. But in a [state] legislature, you stand up, and you make a point, and someone else stands up and makes a counterpoint, and you can rebut that, and it’s a real debate. And a handful of times per session I’ve actually seen a vote turn on the quality of debate. I’ve never seen that in Congress.”
Given his age, most of Putnam’s career is presumably stretched out before him, and he recognizes the unique opportunity he has to make a lasting impression.
“It’s a great opportunity to take a generational approach to the issues we face,” he said. “It’s a rare opportunity for a young person to be in office, and you should use it to, I think, push an agenda that’s more long-term in nature.”
Putnam said his priorities have changed since he started his family. He and his wife, Melissa, have four young children.
“It’s funny — I measure my success a lot differently today than I did when I came to Congress,” Putnam said. “You spend a lot less time reflecting on the professional success or career-oriented goals and a lot more time on how to make the most of your time with your children, how to prepare them for the crazy world that we live in.”