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Draper Pulls Plug on Agriculture Commissioner Campaign

Saying it was too difficult to divide his attention between an underdog campaign for Agriculture Commissioner and his day job at one of the state’s most influential environmental groups, Democrat Eric Draper said Monday he was dropping out of the race.

Draper, deputy director of Audubon Florida, said the same values that led him to work for the outspoken conservation group for 14 years led him to the campaign he was now ending.

“When launching my campaign, I planned to divide my time between my work with Audubon of Florida and the work of campaigning - raising money, traveling and connecting with supporters,” Draper said in an E-mail to supporters. “Now, after nearly three months I've concluded that a choice must be made between the job of running a statewide race and the equally challenging job of leading Audubon's policy work on Everglades restoration and land and water conservation.”

Draper was never a likely candidate for a job usually filled by farmers. The current commissioner, Charlie Bronson, is a central Florida cattle rancher, as are candidates U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, and former state Rep. Rick Minton, D-Fort Pierce. Another candidate in the race, state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, is a gun shop owner who frequently touts his rural roots.

With Draper now leaving the race, the only capital-based candidate is former Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox, a Democrat. Maddox notes he grew up on a farm in Homestead before moving north.

Draper said he was proud of the brief campaign he ran and confident he had influenced the agenda that will now have to be dealt with by the remaining candidates.

“The past three months have been both exciting and encouraging,” Draper wrote to his supporters. “I am confident that constituencies for clean water, safe food, green energy and saving farmland will help to redefine the role of Commissioner of Agriculture.”

But Draper said that with a push in the state House to drill for oil off Florida’s Gulf Coast and the Everglades restoration project ongoing, Audubon Florida needed his focus more than the race for Agriculture Commissioner. Unmentioned in his E-mail was the proposed renewable energy standard for power companies, which also was supported by Draper and other environmentalists, that stalled in the Legislature this year.

“We face serious challenges…..and all non-profit organizations are facing unprecedented financial times,” Draper’s E-mail said. “I am especially grateful to the many people who gave money, time and advice and rallied to help me in this effort. I had thought these manageable challenges but now find they require my full efforts. It is my hope that you and others who supported my campaign will realize that the same values that led me to run - my deep commitment to protecting Florida's land and water - now lead me to recommit to conservation.”

The tough financial times and quixotic-background for the Ag Commissioner position likely played a role in Draper’s fundraising of $36,000. By comparison, U.S. Rep. Putnam led the field with about $750,000 in the first half of 2009.

Draper tried to put a positive face on the fundraising disparity when the numbers were released last month, but the gap was one of the reasons given by former state Democratic Party chairman Maddox when he entered the race mid-July.

Maddox praised Draper Monday, saying he has “done great things for Florida through the years advancing concern for the environment and will continue to do great things.” Maddox added that he did not think Draper’s campaign sputtered because it was not born on a farm.

“This position does an awful lot,” Maddox said in a telephone interview. “You have the agricultural end, but there is also the consumer protection side, which is vitally important, and you have the fact that it’s a Cabinet seat, so you vote on everything from land acquisitions to the location of nuclear plants.”

But Maddox did concede that Draper being out of the race could make his path to the position easier. “It certainly helps people who have known both of us,” Maddox said. “A lot of them are no longer conflicted.”

However, most observers think the race could be an uphill battle for Maddox or any of the other candidates as long as the field includes the well-financed Putnam, who has groomed himself for an Agriculture Commissioner run for years.

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