Politico

Black farmers, civil rights advocates seething over Vilsack pick


President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to bring Tom Vilsack back to lead the Agriculture Department has enraged many farmers of color who say his record on civil rights should have disqualified him from the job.

The criticism comes as Biden is under intense pressure to name a historically diverse Cabinet and expectations had been particularly high for USDA, which has been almost exclusively led by white men and systematically discriminated against farmers of color and women, giving them far less access to crucial federal programs since its inception in 1862.

“Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period,” said Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, a coalition of Black growers and producers from key Southern states working to raise awareness on issues faced by Black farmers. “When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that. It’s very disappointing they even want to consider him coming back after what he has done to limited resource farmers and what he continues to do to destroy lives.”

Biden chose Vilsack because he wanted someone at USDA with deep knowledge of the department’s operations and who can immediately address the problems facing rural communities, farmers and low-income families in need of food assistance during the pandemic, according to a person familiar with Biden’s thinking. The person also pointed to Vilsack’s work at USDA establishing the department’s first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee and creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

“No one knows the department better than Tom Vilsack,” the person said.

While the criticism of Vilsack on racial equity is well-organized and the disappointment runs deep on the left, the opposition is not expected to threaten his path to confirmation. The former two-time Iowa governor who served as Agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration sailed through the confirmation process in 2009 with unanimous approval in the Senate.

Part of the letdown stems from the excitement that had been building for weeks as a large and diverse coalition had publicly urged Biden to pick Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and longtime House Agriculture Committee leader who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department.

Dozens of groups signed a letter supporting Fudge, citing her policy experience and previous commitment to Black farmers. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus who endorsed Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary, also repeatedly urged Biden to pick Fudge for the role.

Instead, Biden’s team opted to place Fudge at the top of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a position that Fudge herself had earlier noted is typically one of the few departments people of color are selected to oversee. While Fudge’s supporters said they’re confident she’ll do a fantastic job leading HUD, they expressed bewilderment at the decision, given Fudge’s extensive anti-hunger and ag policy work in Congress made her particularly well-suited to lead USDA.

The news of Vilsack’s selection came out just hours after top civil rights leaders met virtually with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who’s been selected to serve as a senior adviser to the president. No farming or rural groups were on the call, but NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson brought up concerns about reports that Vilsack had emerged as the frontrunner to lead USDA, again.

Johnson offered a warning to the president-elect and his team, according to a source who was on the call: Picking Vilsack would have negative repercussions in the two razor-thin Senate races in Georgia. Black voters, and particularly rural Black voters, there have not forgotten that Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia and a well-respected civil rights leader, was wrongfully forced out of her job under Vilsack’s leadership after a deceptively edited video featured on Breitbart falsely suggested she was racist.

Once the full video of Sherrod’s remarks came to light, both Vilsack and the White House apologized for pushing her out. (Emails later showed the White House had been very involved in Sherrod’s firing, even though officials denied this at the time.)

Biden listened to the concerns, quietly taking notes throughout the roughly 90-min Zoom meeting, but when Johnson specifically suggested the president-elect owed Sherrod a call to discuss selecting Vilsack, Biden looked up and appeared to be taken aback, the source said, perhaps suggesting the former vice president began to understand just how upset the Black community remains about the episode a decade later.

Later in the meeting, Johnson brought it up again, the source said. The president-elect should really call Sherrod, Johnson said, arguing that it’s not just a moral issue, but picking Vilsack could be detrimental in Georgia.

Biden told leaders on the call that he believed they will be happy with the overall Cabinet, once the rest of the nominees are named, and urged them to not prejudge Vilsack, according to the source. The transition has so far named 12 Cabinet members, eight of whom are people of color and six of whom are women.

A source familiar with Vilsack’s thinking told POLITICO that if he’s nominated to lead the department, he will rely on people like Sherrod and others for guidance. Vilsack has worked to repair his relationship with Sherrod after the incident and has sought her counsel since, the source said.

John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said he was disappointed to learn about both the meeting with civil rights leaders and the Vilsack nomination from news reports after he had spent months working with Biden’s campaign and his transition team. Boyd has reached out to Vilsack and wants to have a conversation to know how he plans to address access to land and credit, increase outreach to farmers of color and more.

“I am hopeful he comes with a different attitude for the next four years than he had his first eight years he was at USDA and solves the issues facing Black, other minorities and small farmers,” Boyd said. “There has to be some real initiative and focus that has to come from him. The agency is not going to do anything if it is not coming from him.”

Boyd remains hopeful that Vilsack will be a better option than current USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who he says has given little support to Black and small-scale farmers.

“I certainly hope that this administration and president-elect will hold Vilsack accountable to get these issues addressed,” Boyd said. “I am hopeful that if we run into problems that we will be able to run back upstairs to the president. We didn’t have that avenue with the Trump administration.”

However, not everyone is giving the president-elect and his nominee the benefit of the doubt. Lawrence Lucas, president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and Lloyd Wright, former director of civil rights at USDA, have penned letters to Biden asking him to reconsider the nomination.

“When it came to issues of race, he was one of the worst I’ve ever come in contact with. What we don’t want is Vilsack to come back,” Wright told POLITICO. “A reshuffling of the department leadership from four years ago will not do us any more good than what we have now. We didn’t gain anything under Vilsack.”

The letter from Wright outlines key findings from an investigative report by The Counter that shows between 2013 and 2015, 7 percent of microloans went to Black farmers and less than 0.2 percent of USDA’s $5.7 billion loans in 2015 went to Black farmers, among other disparities that precluded Black farmers from access to land and capital.

The investigation found that the Obama administration had distorted government data to falsely suggest there was a renaissance in Black farming under Vilsack, who often touted a “new era for civil rights” at the department while discrimination continued and little had changed.

Long before the Obama administration, USDA had a proven track record of discriminating against socially disadvantaged farmers, denying them equal access to important programs that help producers stay afloat through good times and bad. After a slew of lawsuits, the department has paid out billions to settle class action discrimination claims from African American, Hispanic, Native American and female farmers.

Vilsack did not respond to a request for comment. The person close to Biden noted that during Vilsack’s tenure, the department worked on several equity issues. USDA settled major class action discrimination cases to partially compensate farmers and received fewer complaints about unequal treatment from employees and farmers during the Obama administration, according to USDA’s own data. However, this data has since been questioned. Top officials at the department also signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Black Farmers Association to help Black farmers keep their land, among other actions.

According to a study by Data for Progress, throughout the 20th century, farmers of color were systematically denied loans and credit, lacked access to legal defense against fraud and experienced “outright acts of violence and intimidation,” resulting in a 90 percent loss of Black-owned farmland.

Today, according to the 2017 Agricultural census, the average size of a farm owned by a white producer was 431 acres and the average size owned by a Black or African American producer was only 132 acres.

While the number of white farmers has remained consistent, the number of farmers of color has dramatically decreased over time.

“There were no consequences to those very well documented discriminatory actions by USDA,” said Rudy Arredondo, president of the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association. “To this day, there have been no consequences. Some of the folks that were there during that time are still in office.”

Arredondo said that during Vilsack’s eight years at USDA, he never met with his organization, which represents about 75,000 Latino producers across the nation, despite repeated requests and an invitation to the group’s annual conference in New Mexico in 2015.

“The likelihood of us continuing to be ignored by Mr. Vilsack is not something we look forward to,” he said.

Yet during Vilsack’s tenure, he established a good relationship with the United Farm Workers union through Arturo Rodriguez, former longtime president of the organization. Rodriguez himself had gained traction within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members wanted to see USDA led by someone with deep experience advocating for farmworkers.

“When [Vilsack] became secretary of Agriculture, up until that point in time, nobody from the United Farm Workers had been invited to go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Rodriguez told POLITICO. “He was the first one who ever reached out to us.”

Vilsack helped UFW rally support among California lawmakers to pass legislation giving farmworkers overtime pay, Rodriguez said, and he has also been vocal about the need to grant immigrant workers legal status.

A former top Vilsack aide told POLITICO that he believes “the picture that’s being painted about Secretary Vilsack is not accurate.”

“I feel like a lot more work needs to be done and that’s one of the reasons Vilsack wants to return to USDA, is because there’s unfinished business, in particular with equity issues,” the aide said.

However, Vilsack’s involvement in the industry through his job as head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council also concerns some like Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, who say they definitely don’t want him to return.

“We need someone fresh that has a record of serving, and serving the underserved. I know Vilsack is not good. He didn’t do anything when he was there the first time, so why would he do anything now?” Grant said. “If someone doesn’t have a real sense of family farming, that’s not a corporate size entity, then they don’t have ideas to help us.”

Even individual producers like Abraham Carpenter Jr., a Black farmer in Grady, Ark., who grows produce for major retailers and farmers markets, said they would not support Vilsack for the position, given his track record under the Obama administration.

“Now, Joe Biden was a party to that situation, but he was only the vice president and maybe didn’t have the power, but he doesn’t have an excuse now,” Carpenter said. “If he doesn’t have an excuse, then it’s time he treats Black farmers fairly and gives them the justice they deserve.”

Carpenter agrees that Vilsack’s track record does not give him a good start in the role.

“He had the opportunity for many years to do the right thing, and he didn’t,” Carpenter said. “Why would I put him back in that position when he worked against us? And if he didn’t work against me, he certainly didn’t help me.”

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