by Diane Roberts | July 4, 2017

Capital Dame: Hello, Governors!

The list of head-honcho wannabes is growing like a weed on both sides of the political fence. So meet ’em before they get pulled, mowed over or worse.

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Illustration by Stephen Lomazzo

Running for governor? No?  Everybody else is.

Not that being the CEO of the F-L-A is as fun as it used to be—Rick Scott sold the executive jet, so whoever’s elected in 2018 will have to fly Delta like the rest of us. Florida’s got a lot of big problems too: Zika, opioids, hurricanes, guns, rising sea levels, disastrous plastic surgery and stinky beaches. Our schools are starving for money (our teachers are just plain starving), half our lakes are smothered in algae so toxic it can kill a dog and the state ranks 49th in the nation in mental health care spending, which is, of course, obvious to anyone paying attention.

Nevertheless, an impressive number of grown people have intimated that they’re interested in the gig.

In the Republican corner, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a dead ringer for Opie Taylor c. 1965, has been campaigning since 2011, when he returned to Florida after five terms in Congress.

Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, wearer of smooth suits and boots that look like they’ve been crafted from the skins of newborn kittens, isn’t officially out as a candidate, but he’s traveling the state giving stump-style speeches promising to slash spending on fripperies such as education and the environment.

Bearded Bad Santa lookalike Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater figures he deserves consideration as well. He recently told the Tampa Bay Times: “I love this state. Why shouldn’t I think about running for something else?” Why not, indeed? Latvala has been in the Florida Legislature, on and off, since 1994. Come 2018, though, he’s term-limited out and thus in need of a job.

Weight-loss guru, part-time rock ’n’ roller and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also needs a job. A two-time presidential election flame-out, Huckabee now lives on the Redneck Riviera in a $3 million beach house that only got permitted when he pulled strings with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. (Point in his favor: He knows how this state operates.) And let’s not be like the White House and forget Attorney General Pam Bondi (after she dropped that Trump U lawsuit and everything!). In March 2016, she said she had no interest in running: “I am supporting Adam Putnam, who I feel, he is our agricultural commissioner, and I think he’ll be a great governor for our state.” Still, you never know.

Which brings us to the Democrats and their passel of hopefuls. Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee mayor and infant phenomenon—he’s all of 37—declared himself a candidate on March 1, 2017. Gillum is a rising star in the Democratic Party, a guy who made Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist. Alas, he kicked off his campaign with a mini-scandal about (you guessed it) emails! Seems Gillum used taxpayer-funded software to send political messages. He’s paid the city back but is now under investigation. Fellow whippersnapper Chris King, 38, has also announced. He’s a Harvard grad and investor in affordable housing. On the upside, he’s not under investigation. But nobody’s ever heard of him.

Everybody’s heard of John Morgan. His name is everywhere, appearing on billboards, on the sides of buses, in TV and radio ads, and probably in your unconscious mind. His slogan “For the People” is so ubiquitous you may well hear it in your dreams. Morgan is a super-litigator, a trash-talker and a champion of medicinal weed. He is somewhat Trumpian in his enjoyment of wealth—he’s a private jet-riding, Mercedes-driving populist who once quit booze cold turkey after ending up in the Seminole County lockup on a DUI.  Some call him a mere ambulance-chaser. That’s unfair. Morgan actually catches ambulances. And eats them for lunch.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham has many advantages, including: 1. She’s a moderate who can get votes in counties where people think that evolution is a satanic plot and that Hillary Clinton is a child-eating practitioner of Wicca, 2. she’s tall, and 3. her daddy is beloved former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham. Let’s pray he writes a campaign song for her as powerful as his “I’m a Florida Cracker; I’m a Graham cracker!”

An embarras de richesse, as the French would say. The French would say it sarcastically, but never mind. Who’s actually viable? Who can hoover up the millions of bucks needed to compete in state media markets from the snake-handling wilds of West Florida to the paved prairies of Orlando and the flooded streets of Miami? And who can capture voters’ fickle hearts?

Perhaps Floridians would like a Floridian: Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum and Adam Putnam are actual natives. We haven’t had one of those since Lawton Chiles or Buddy McKay. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a governor who looked convincing while cuddling a local marsupial at the Wausau Possum Festival?

Maybe we’ll go for a political “outsider” (that seems fashionable at the moment), somebody like—well, none of these people are genuine outsiders, though what do you want to bet most of them will claim to be?

But let’s get real: Money’s what elects governors. John Morgan can fund his own campaign just like the carpetbagger currently occupying the Mansion: Scott’s first term cost him $75 million of his own money. Gwen Graham can raise cash; she proved that when she beat a Republican undertaker in 2014 for a congressional seat in traditionally conservative North Florida. But the real dollar magnet is Adam Putnam, or, as his wife probably doesn’t call him (but definitely should), Little Sugar. Putnam’s been cuddled up with Florida’s massive agriculture industry, especially Big Sugar, since he was knee high to a scrub jay. U.S. Sugar has dropped almost $500,000 into Putnam’s Florida Grown political action campaign directly, though Florida Crystals has been less overt. Rather, they have contributed big bucks to the Associated Industries of Florida’s various PACs, which in turn have contributed six-figure lumps to Putnam.

To be fair, Big Sugar will contribute to any candidate with a pulse and a hope in hell of winning a primary, so it won’t do to make too much of Putnam’s coziness with the sweet people who make America’s favorite addictive substance and pollute Florida’s water.

Of course, it’s early days yet: There may yet be some stealth manatee of a candidate swimming furtively upward, soon to surface. Could it be Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who recently covered himself in glory by suggesting that the U.S. invade Cuba and imitating the voice of a black preacher at a meeting of the Hillsborough Democrats? Grant Hill, former Orlando Magic great and 1994 ACC player of the year at Duke? See “tall” above—everybody knows tall people do well in elections. Or how about Jackie Siegel, director of the Mrs. Florida America Pageant and star of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary about her tragic quest to live in a 90,000-square-foot copy of Louis XIV’s palace. She used to date Donald Trump!

Or maybe Carlos Beruff, current chair of the Constitution Revision Commission and former chair of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He had to resign from the board of that organization after he voted to approve a friend’s development plans—plans that would have destroyed sensitive wetlands. Beruff once said he’d be happy to rip out 40 acres of coastal mangroves to improve his view.

How authentically Floridian is that?

Florida’s gubernatorial contest has only just begun. All the possible candidates are as fresh-scented and shiny-new as a white undershirt right out of its package. In a few months, they’ll have become a bit ragged, stained and so smelly that even hot water and OxiClean won’t take away the stink. Don’t panic: You’ll have plenty of time to come to loathe them all.