The Magazine

Up and Adam

The irresistible rise of Rep. Putnam.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JILLIAN BANDES
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IN 2001, when he was 26, Adam Putnam found himself the young est member of Congress. He was nicknamed "Opie"--for his thick red hair and youthful appearance--and was generally sized up as inexperienced. Five years later, the Florida conservative is chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the fifth most powerful position in the Republican House leadership.

Now 33, Putnam is known less for his youth than for his political skill. Says House majority whip Roy Blunt, "He understands his business, he's great at working with the members, and he's patient."

These qualities may be the primary reason for Putnam's quick rise, but according to Rep. Clay Shaw, a fellow Florida Republican, Putnam has enjoyed a little help along the way: He was more ambitious than most members of Florida's large Republican delegation, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert took a liking to him as soon as the congressman arrived in Washington.

"He really caught the speaker's eye," Shaw said. Indeed, Hastert recalled his first impression of Putnam as "nobody's fool." Says Hastert, "He was articulate, knew the issues on both a national basis and local issues, and he was good at it. He had a sort of down-home presentation, too. He understood the real issues that people care about."

Hastert recognized Putnam's leadership potential. "I think he has the background that can put him anywhere he wants to go in the future," says the speaker.

Putnam has been able to dodge questions about his breadth of experience with a careful mix of respect and initiative. He speaks casually when talking about his record as a legislator and underscores the importance of hard work.

"You know, everybody comes to these jobs with some kind of limited life experience, whatever they do," Putnam told me. "I was going into this admitting that these were my life experiences, and that I'm going to work day in and day out to make the best decisions for this district."

First elected to the Florida House of Representatives at 22, Putnam now wields influence in the international arena as well as on the domestic front. High on the policy committee's docket has been the Iranian nuclear crisis, an issue on which Putnam has worked closely with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. He is responsible for keeping his party members abreast of the Iranian nuclear threat.

"If they fall behind on the learning curve, and we haven't prepared members with the intellectual ammunition, they don't have the information they need to make the good decisions," he told me. "The U.N. utterly failed in dealing with Iraq; I think the U.N. will fail in dealing with Iran. So, what's the new international institution that recognizes how the world has changed since World War II? That functions? That's pragmatic?"

The way Putnam is building up the Republican Policy Committee, it's almost as if he sees it as the alternative. A fierce defender of U.S. power and American military intervention, Putnam has reshaped the committee to function as an information exchange. His leadership can be credited with a dramatic increase in attendance at policy committee meetings, furthering the value of the work done there.

"He has a very good manner with members," said Hastert. "He has the ability to talk to them and communicate with them, and the ability to do that with the press."

Putnam's idealism in foreign affairs is second only to his dedication to lowering taxes and maintaining a free market system. His fiscal record is solidly conservative: He's voted "yes" on every tax cut that's come before him in Congress, and initiated the first-ever Republican Policy Committee public hearing on tax reform at the beginning of June. He recently sponsored legislation to prevent natural gas drilling off the coast of Flor ida.

Putnam is an avid outdoorsman and lay minister in his hometown Episcopal church. He and his wife Melissa have three children, with a fourth on the way. Whether because of his dedication to family life, his conservative voting record, or the fact that his family has lived in Florida for five generations, his older constituents are enthusiastic. When the University of Florida graduate first ran for office, retirement communities welcomed him, praising his initiative, Putnam said, and showing their willingness to take a chance on a younger representative.

He might not have such smooth sailing on one issue, though. His position on immigration places him squarely between the president and House Republicans. His sympathy for workers in a district whose economy revolves around agriculture and ranching prevents him from signing onto the get-tough House bill, which would make illegal immigrants guilty of a felony. But Putnam insists immigration is an issue that needs to be approached pragmatically.