President-elect Joe Biden has selected Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary for eight years under the Obama administration, was a top rural and agriculture policy adviser during Biden’s presidential campaign. He’s also a former governor of Iowa and was a top contender to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.
One person familiar with Biden’s thinking said Vilsack’s previous experience running the department was instrumental in the decision because the president-elect wanted someone who could immediately tackle the hunger and farm crises that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. This person added Biden was impressed by Vilsack’s tenure as the head of the department.
While leading USDA, Vilsack focused on leveraging the department’s $150 billion mission to support the nation’s farmers beyond rural development, and for nutrition assistance for low-income Americans. He oversaw a major update to school nutrition standards that was spearheaded by former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Since the Obama administration, Vilsack has been leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a trade group that advocates for the dairy industry overseas.
Vilsack, who largely avoided major controversy during his tenure, faces an expected easy path to Senate confirmation. Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters on Tuesday that he likes what Vilsack “did as secretary of Agriculture for eight years and if he was in for another four years it’d be OK with me.” The Iowa Republican also offered to speak on behalf of Vilsack during confirmation proceedings.
Still, his appointment is likely to enrage the progressive wing of the agriculture lobby which has been pressing for a fresh vision at the department in order to aggressively tackle climate change, consolidation of agribusiness and racial inequities within the industry.
Civil rights leaders and groups representing farmers of color have already publicly urged against Vilsack’s selection, noting that a broad, national coalition had publicly supported picking Rep. Marcia Fudge for the role. The Ohio Democrat, a longtime leader on the House Agriculture Committee, would have been the first Black woman and only the second woman to serve in the post.
POLITICO first reported Monday that Vilsack had emerged as Biden’s top choice after weeks of jockeying by other hopefuls.
In addition to the disappointment that Biden did not opt for a diverse pick for the department — which has been almost exclusively led by white men since the Civil War — there is also increasing criticism of Vilsack’s own record on race during the Obama administration.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the prospect of Vilsack “extremely problematic for the African-American community” in a recent interview on CNN.
An investigation last year by The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom, found that USDA had falsely inflated the department’s record on civil rights under Vilsack’s leadership.
In 2010, Vilsack came under fire after Shirley Sherrod, then USDA’s Georgia director of rural development, was wrongly forced to resign after a deceptively edited Breitbart video appeared to show her claiming to have short-changed a white farmer because Black farmers have long been discriminated against.
Once Sherrod’s full remarks came to light, revealing that she had not only not discriminated against the farmer, but helped him save his farm, both Vilsack and the White House apologized for the government’s reaction. (Emails later showed the White House had been very involved in Sherrod’s firing.)
Vilsack’s selection comes after former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp had been seen as the most likely pick for several weeks. Fudge also became a strong contender for the role with considerable backing from progressives and vocal support from House Whip Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was considered crucial to his path to victory. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm had also been under consideration.
Fudge has been selected to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, POLITICO reported Tuesday.
In recent days, some lawmakers and industry leaders had been pressing the Biden team to consider Vilsack’s deputy at USDA Kathleen Merrigan and former United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez.