WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 2016 - Susan Combs, a former Texas agriculture commissioner and state comptroller, interviewed with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Tuesday to become agriculture secretary or possibly take another role in the Trump administration.

Combs has the support of House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas. 

Combs, who grew up on a west Texas ranch, served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner from 1999 to 2007 and two more as state comptroller from 2007 to 2015. The state comptroller, who is essentially the state treasurer, is one of Texas’ most powerful elected positions. 

In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Conaway described Combs as knowledgeable about agriculture policy and that he would “feel very comfortable” working with her in developing the next farm bill. Conaway said she's a "strong woman," well over 6-feet tall, who "would fit well in the Trump cabinet. She could hold her own.”

She has earned praise from agricultural interests for bringing stakeholders together to address endangered species issues and for acting to address concerns that dairy farms were polluting a major watershed. 

“She’s a person that wants things done, and not next week, and not this week, and not today, but yesterday. She likes to see things gone after and attacked right now. She doesn’t let things sit,” said Gene Richardson, director of commodities and regulatory activities for the Texas Farm Bureau. 

Bob Stallman, a Texas cattle and rice producer who served as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation from 2000 until this year, said in an email to Agri-Pulse that Combs “did a great job as Ag Commissioner here in TX!”

Combs began coordinating state endangered species policy as Texas agriculture commissioner and took that role to the comptroller's office, and the state legislature subsequently gave the comptroller statutory control of endangered species issues. 

Combs, however, may be best known outside of Texas for her role as agriculture commissioner in increasing school nutrition standards and banning deep-fat fryers in schools. The rules have since been rolled back by the current agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, an action Combs described as “baffling.” “If you give children bad choices, they will make them,” she said. 

A graduate of Vassar College and the University of Texas law school, Combs came under criticism during her 2006 campaign for state comptroller over a 1990 romance novel that she wrote. An opponent claimed it was pornographic. Combs said it was “lighthearted and entertaining.”

Combs initially supported former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Floriina in the presidential race and then switched to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. She eventually came to support Trump.

Combs’ interview came as Trump’s agricultural advisers continued to push back hard against the possibility that, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., could become agriculture secretary. “I have a large number of agricultural team members who are unalterably opposed to Sen. Heitkamp,” said Gary Baise, a Washington lawyer who has been coordinating Trump’s agricultural advisory council. 

Among the issues that opponents of Heitkamp have cited is her support for the livestock marketing rules issued last week by USDA and mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat.

During an interview with the Red River Farm Network on Tuesday, Heitkamp said she was in communication with the Trump transition organization but she indicated she would be happy staying in the Senate. Her focus, she said, was on “where I’m in the best position to do the job I was hired to do in 2012, and that is to represent the voters of my state.”

She went on, “When you say, ‘What’s the opportunity when you’re senator?’ The opportunity is to still live in your state. That’s no surprise to any one. I like North Dakota. In fact, I love North Dakota, and I love living here, and I love being back in this state. I always tell people, I work in Washington, D.C., but I live in North Dakota. That’s a big part of my quality of life.”

Another possible candidate for USDA, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, has not been interviewed by Pence or Trump, and as of Tuesday no meeting had been scheduled, according to a supporter, Bill Flory, a former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Flory said Otter is a "Trump-like, high energy type of person who understands business, politics and the interagency process that is so important at the cabinet level."

Another person who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for agriculture secretary or another position in USDA, Iowa agribusiness leader Bruce Rastetter was seen at Trump Tower on Tuesday. A Trump spokesman said Wednesday that he didn’t know whether Rastetter was being considered for an administration post but that he had a “wealth of knowledge” and was “very well known” in Iowa politics. 

In March 2015, Rastetter hosted a summit in Des Moines for presidential candidates. Trump was not yet a candidate and did not attend.

Meanwhile, Joel Leftwich has left Trump’s transition landing team at USDA. Leftwich was splitting his time between the department and the Senate Agriculture Committee, where he is the Republican staff director. 

Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.,, said in a statement: “I lent the Transition my top staffer, Joel Leftwich, to help them get underway. As you know, the Majority Leader has set an aggressive agenda for the new Congress beginning immediately in the New Year, and we are setting a fast pace in the Senate Agriculture Committee. It is time for Joel to return his full attention to Committee business."

"I look forward to the announcement of a new Secretary and am appreciative of the work the USDA transition team has done to date.”

(Updated Dec. 21)

(Photo by Gage Skidmore)