WASHINGTON, July 6, 2016 - Ask almost anyone in farm political circles in Washington to list the top prospect for Hillary Clinton’s agriculture secretary and the answer is often, “Tom Vilsack, if he wants to stay.”
Ask the same folks who they see as the favorite to head USDA under Donald Trump, and you get a variant of what one said, “Right now, anybody you name has a long shot at it.”
Speculation about an appointment more than six months away may be early but surely not idle, in a town in which personnel tells a lot about policy. It is one of the questions most often asked in agricultural policy and political circles, even if the answers are necessarily uncertain.
In the Clinton sweepstakes, a long-time Vilsack ally believes the secretary is on her short list for the vice presidential nomination. Short of that, he sees Vilsack as a potential White House chief of staff, given his experience as Iowa’s governor and his long political relationship with Clinton.
What is clear is that, during the transition to a Clinton Administration, whatever his formal position, Vilsack would wield significant influence in selecting a successor, not only to carry out the new president’s agenda but also to reinforce his own record at USDA.
To farm policy and political veterans, that suggests she would choose someone in Vilsack’s mold who can try to satisfy USDA’s often conflicting food, agricultural, energy and non-farm rural constituencies. Senior Clinton campaign staffers have made a point of reiterating that she is on board with a 2012 convention platform statement that “Democrats support agriculture from the small farms that feed the community to the large farms that feed the world.”
The next secretary also will be challenged by a deteriorating farm economy, with most likely excessive crop surpluses and plunging prices, in addition to the task of preparing for a new farm bill in 2018. He or she also will be charged with implementing new rules governing biotech food labeling, another potential minefield with powerful constituency cross-currents.
Among often-suggested names fitting that mold is former Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, who recently left to become vice president of public policy and chief sustainability officer at DuPont. Eminently likeable, she has a strong conservation background and legislative experience and played a key role in implementation of the 2014 farm bill.
Another is California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross, who was Vilsack’s chief of staff before taking over the nation’s largest state agriculture department in 2011. She would bring ties with farmer cooperatives and the specialty crop industry and earlier experience with the Nebraska Rural Electric Association and the staff of the late Sen. Edward Zorinsky, D-Neb.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, who has steered a middle course between biotech and organic interests as chairman of Vilsack’s advisory committee on coexistence, would continue the effort to bridge the cultural divides in agriculture. He earlier was a pioneer in developing crop insurance programs applicable to smaller-scale producers.
Clinton is familiar with Washington lawyer Marshall Matz through his leadership on African agricultural trade and development when she led the Feed the Future program as secretary of state. He also is a Vilsack ally with expertise in nutrition programs and specialty crops. He was instrumental in President Obama’s campaigns, co-chairing its rural council.
Both Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have strong ties to former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who was the first woman and the first Arkansan to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee. She played a key role in the 2008 farm bill before losing her third term bid to GOP Sen. John Boozman in 2010 and later founded the Lincoln Policy Group, where she and her team lobby on behalf of clients including Monsanto, the Waterways Council and YUM! Brands.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., former Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, also get mentions, but each is from a state with a Republican governor who could appoint the successor. Members of Congress who may be on the list include Reps. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., a former House Agriculture Committee chairman who would be welcomed by commercial farming interests, and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who would be favored by nutrition program and international food assistance organizations. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, as a House Agriculture subcommittee ranking Democrat, has earned praise for her work on USDA food assistance programs. An African-American, she would add racial balance.
The number of potential candidates for an administration headed by Republican Donald J. Trump is either far fewer or a lot greater, depending on how one views it. Trump’s only significant exposure to agricultural policy issues came during the Iowa primary, when he talked with several farm-related figures, especially about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which he supports. On the other side of the coin, Trump would be free to seek a secretary from a long list of Republicans.
The qualifications and background that may appeal to a Trump transition team remain as much a question mark as the presumptive nominee’s views on commodity policy or biotechnology. Also, finding someone compatible with Trump’s positions on trade and immigration may be difficult.
“Right now, anybody you name has a long shot,” says one former USDA political appointee. “I don’t even have a good rumor.” Yet the list of potential secretaries on the Republican side has always been extensive. Due partly to strong GOP leanings in the commercial farming sector, recent Republican presidential nominees have had significant public endorsements. One caveat may be, the GOP veteran said, “people are ducking into the woods,” not endorsing Trump.
Mitt Romney’s campaign four years ago published an extensive list of backers which included many of those on the 2008 McCain-Palin Farm & Ranch Team. Among those that jump out: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, former California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, now president of Purdue. Several other state agriculture directors and state Farm Bureau presidents are on both lists.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, was one of Trump’s first congressional endorsers after it became clear that he would be the nominee. He said in May that he hoped to help shape Trump’s agricultural policies. His predecessor as committee chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is another possibility.
Among Washington hands, the name mentioned most frequently is Chuck Conner, the former deputy secretary (and interim secretary) at USDA who now heads the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. While eminently qualified to run the department, he has taken strong stands on trade and immigration policies at odds with Trump’s – characteristics he shares with many of the elected officials, farm group leaders and state commissioners on the GOP lists.
Trump’s Iowa experience introduced him to politically active businessman Bruce Rastetter and Gov. Terry Branstad, whose son Eric is heading Trump’s general election campaign in Iowa. While neither endorsed Trump before the Iowa primary, either would be qualified.
Given his background as a CEO, Trump “would get the best people in his mind to serve in his cabinet,” Tyson Redpath, senior vice president at the Russell Group and one-time assistant to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Animal Agriculture Institute earlier this year. “Imagine a secretary of agriculture that develops an agenda and is able to pursue that with vigor,” he said, “ending years of White House centralized control.”
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