President-elect Joe Biden is leaning toward picking former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to return as head of the USDA, according to four people familiar with the discussions, turning to a longtime ally over several other more diverse candidates who have been jockeying for the role.
Though the decision is not final and the dynamics are still in flux, Vilsack’s emergence as the strong favorite for the job indicates the transition is looking for a USDA leader with deep management and policy experience who is close with the Biden-world. The former Iowa governor, who served as Agriculture secretary for eight years under the Obama administration, was a top rural and agriculture policy adviser to the Biden campaign.
“He is the preferred choice of Biden’s inner circle,” one of the people said, but added, “that could change.”
The new frontrunner status for Vilsack comes after weeks in which the public discussion largely centered on former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who has a vocal set of allies lobbying for her to get the position. Biden was on the verge of tapping Heitkamp for the role as recently as two weeks ago, POLITICO reported last week. But those plans were scrambled after House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn publicly criticized the transition team for a lack of diversity among its Cabinet picks to date. Clyburn has been encouraging Biden to select Fudge for Agriculture secretary.
While Vilsack leads the short list, new potential names for the role continue to pop up, like former Michigan attorney general and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Nominating Vilsack, who is close with Biden and his top aides and endorsed the president-elect early in the 2020 election cycle, would do little to allay concerns that the Biden administration’s inner circle is dominated by white men. But people familiar with the matter said Fudge would remain a contender for other Cabinet posts, including secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Biden team has emphasized that the Cabinet must be viewed as a whole and that the president-elect will have a diverse administration once the full slate of nominees and appointees is made public.
Vilsack’s familiarity with the department’s sprawling mission and what would likely be an easy path to Senate confirmation have become two of the strongest arguments in favor of his nomination. In his previous stint overseeing USDA, Vilsack focused on leveraging all parts of the $150 billion department, whose authority extends far beyond supporting the nation’s farmers into rural development, conservation and nutrition aid for low-income Americans. He oversaw a major update to school nutrition standards that was spearheaded by former First Lady Michelle Obama — changes that the Trump administration has since relaxed.
He largely avoided major controversy during his tenure.
The Agriculture Department is expected to play a significant role in how a Biden administration addresses the Covid-19 crisis, helping to rebuild the rural economy, boosting the public health infrastructure in rural areas and expanding access to nutrition assistance as a record number of Americans are out of work.
Yet a Vilsack pick is likely to upset some agriculture and food insiders who were excited about other names on the transition’s shortlist — including Fudge, Vilsack’s former top deputy Kathleen Merrigan and former United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez — whom they say would bring a much-needed fresh vision to USDA.
Vilsack could face opposition from progressives in particular, who want to see the department’s resources channeled to aggressively tackle climate change, confront racial inequities in the food system and reverse concentration within the agriculture industry.
After leaving the Agriculture Department, Vilsack moved over to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a nonprofit that represents global trade interests of dairy producers, processors and co-ops. During the campaign, Vilsack pushed Biden officials and the DNC to pay attention to rural issues, warning that ignoring that demographic would prevent Democrats from taking the White House and seats in Congress.
Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed reporting.