By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
JACKSONVILLE — In their second and final debate for the Republican nomination for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis clashed Wednesday over President Donald Trump, Florida’s water crisis and campaign contributions.
Putnam, a two-term Cabinet member and former member of Congress, accused DeSantis, a three-term member of Congress, of running a campaign light on Florida issues.
Putnam mocked DeSantis — who has appeared frequently on Fox News — for relying heavily on his endorsement from Trump, likening the congressman’s campaign to the Seinfeld comedy show.
“The campaign is being run out of studio. They have a smattering of celebrity guest appearances. And at the end of the day, it’s all about nothing. But unlike Seinfeld, it’s not funny,” Putnam said. “Floridians deserved better than a candidate who makes it all about himself and not about the future of Florida.”
But DeSantis struck back at Putnam, noting he has spent his entire adulthood in a political office and had accused Trump of being “vile” and “obscene” for sexual comments that were reported during the 2016 presidential campaign. He also noted Putnam did not campaign for Trump.
“No one knew where he was during the campaign. Now he acts like he is this big supporter?” DeSantis said. “This is inauthentic. This is a career politician trying to tell you what you want to see, not coming from the heart. He’s already proven he will say and do anything in terms of millions of dollars in fake ads to get elected. It’s not working. But that’s what he’s willing to do.”
Putnam shot back that DeSantis has run for three offices — an abandoned U.S. Senate bid, a congressional election and governor — since 2015.
“He’s run for three offices in three years. That’s a career politician with ADD,” Putnam said.
Some of the toughest exchanges were related to the water crisis that has resulted in the release of toxic algae impacting coastal communities in southwest and southeastern Florida. Many residents blame the bloom on the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
Putnam defended his response to the crisis, saying he is committed to protecting the state’s water resources, calling it the “golden goose.”
He questioned DeSantis’ knowledge of the problem.
“I think that you can put everything my opponent knows about water on your sticky note and still have room left over for your grocery list,” Putnam said.
And Putnam said Florida has taken the lead on trying to restore the vast South Florida water system, which includes Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, while support from Washington has lagged.
But DeSantis charged that Putnam’s response was shaped by his support from U.S. Sugar, which DeSantis said had pumped millions of dollars of campaign contributions into Putnam’s bid, using some of the money to finance advertising that DeSantis said distorted his congressional record.
“Adam is basically the errand boy for U.S. Sugar,” DeSantis said. “He will not do anything to offend U.S. Sugar, which is his main supporter.”
Putnam said more than 90 percent of his contributions have come from “real Floridians,” while DeSantis’ campaign has drawn support from casino owners and “pornographers on the West Coast.” The latter reference is to a $213,000 donation from Ahmad Khawaja, whose company helps collect payments for various groups, including porn websites.
DeSantis and Putnam also clashed over the congressman’s support for a “fair tax,” which would replace all federal taxes with a national sales tax.
DeSantis accused Putnam of “lying,” since his campaign is running ads accusing the Republican congressman of supporting a major tax increase on Floridians. DeSantis said the fair-tax proposal has strong support from conservatives since it would replace all other federal taxes, including the income tax. He noted the state Senate passed a memorial in support of the proposal in 2014.
Putnam defended his criticism, noting the fair-tax plan would impose a 23 percent sales tax on purchases such as prescription drugs and housing. He said the plan “may sound good in a Harvard economics classroom,” a reference to DeSantis’ law degree, but it would hurt Florida families.
DeSantis said “lefties at Harvard would hate” the fair tax since it would eliminate the federal tax code.
The two Republican candidates, in contrast to their Democratic rivals, were in agreement in opposing the expansion of Medicaid in Florida under the federal Affordable Care Act. They were also in agreement on recent state laws that have expanded the use of charter schools and other school “choice” programs.
The debate was hosted by the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute and WJXT Channel 4.
Republican voters will decide between DeSantis and Putnam in the Aug. 28 primary. The winner will face the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 6 general election. Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, is leaving office because of term limits.