Energy & Environment

Vilsack’s stock rises as Biden eyes inroads to rural America


President-elect Joe Biden’s recent focus on Tom Vilsack to serve as his secretary of Agriculture comes as Democrats seek to appeal to rural voters after a poor showing in the 2020 elections.

The former Iowa governor, who served with Biden in the Obama administration, has deep ties with rural America — and with major agricultural lobbies, which has sparked a pushback from progressives.

Yet as Biden pledges to select a Cabinet that “looks like America,” Vilsack could help shore up support with a demographic that Democrats are losing.

The transition team has also focused on former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), another rural lawmaker, to lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who represents an urban district and has been a fierce advocate for the food assistance programs that are run by the USDA. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is also in the running.

Vilsack’s emergence as a favorite could also indicate Biden is leaning toward keeping the USDA’s traditional focus on its ag support programs after the former vice president promised to boost the rural economy.

“Biden will bring back America’s advantage in agriculture, create jobs, and build a bright future for rural communities by investing in the next generation of agriculture and conservation,” the campaign wrote in its rural action plan.

Vilsack, 69, is highlighting many of the same fault lines that emerged when Heitkamp was floated for the job.

Progressive groups criticized Heitkamp’s campaign contributions from major ag corporations and moderate voting record, while a coalition of 60 groups backed Fudge, sending a letter to the Biden transition arguing she would be an ally to farmers, food-chain workers, consumers and rural communities.

“I was a little mystified by the potential Vilsack choice given how solid a line was drawn with the Heitkamp-Fudge situation,” one ag lobbyist told The Hill.

Biden has been under heavy pressure from progressives, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, to select Fudge as his Agriculture secretary.

But recent reports have suggested she may be in the running to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development instead. 

Fudge has openly campaigned for the USDA job, arguing the Biden administration should branch out beyond the Cabinet posts that have traditionally seen more diverse leadership.

“As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD,'” she told Politico last month. 

Fudge would make history as the first Black woman to lead the USDA. A senior member of the House Agriculture Committee from a more urban district, Fudge has been a stalwart champion for food stamps and other food security programs.

Progressives who have taken shots at Vilsack point to his work during the Trump administration as president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a major dairy lobby.

“His coziness with Big Dairy is pretty direct. It’s not just his policy goals — it’s his current employer as well,” the ag lobbyist told The Hill. 

The Biden team did not respond to a request for comment, and the U.S. Dairy Export Council said the former ag secretary would decline to comment until a nomination for the position is officially announced. 

Beyond connections with major industry groups, Vilsack also worked as a registered lobbyist in the Iowa office of the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, another problem for progressives who have urged Biden to stay away from hiring corporate lobbyists or Wall Street executives.

“Since leaving the USDA he has represented corporate dairy operations in promoting their exports. He is not what the USDA needs to help make all of U.S. agriculture more sustainable and resilient in the time of climate change when bigger is better is not the answer,” Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, which advocates to protect human health, said by email.

Another factor is getting a nominee confirmed by a Senate that will be either majority GOP or with the slimmest majority possible for Democrats. Two runoff elections next month in Georgia will determine the majority; if Democrats win both races, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break the 50-50 tie.

Vilsack has been confirmed by the Senate before and would likely pass muster.

Fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) gave his backing to Vilsack earlier this week.

“I would like to have him be the next secretary of Agriculture for two reasons. One, he understands the role [of] the family farmer and the importance of that institution in the production of food, and he’s very aware of the importance of biofuels to the health of agriculture,” Grassley said on a call with reporters.

One source in the biofuels industry, which is central to Iowa’s economy, called Vilsack an “excellent choice” given his experience working with “a broad spectrum of interests.”

“He’s the right man for the job, and frankly President-elect Biden is very lucky that Vilsack agreed to throw his hat in the ring,” the source told The Hill.

The conservative-leaving American Farm Bureau Federation also spoke highly of their working relationship with Vilsack.

“President-elect Biden has an important decision to make at an important time for agriculture. We encourage Mr. Biden to select a person with a strong understanding of agriculture and the challenges facing America’s farmers and ranchers,” Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said in a statement.

“We have the opportunity to work together to improve the lives of rural Americans.”

Tags Agriculture Biden transition Chuck Grassley Heidi Heitkamp Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Tom Vilsack USDA

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