A Biden possibility: Tom Vilsack as three-term agriculture secretary

Tom Vilsack could be on the verge of competing with a fellow Iowan, “Tama Jim” Wilson, for the record of longest-serving cabinet secretary in U.S. history. But as soon as Vilsack was identified on Monday as the leading contender for agriculture secretary in the Biden administration, farm and consumer activists criticized him as a friend of Big Ag and a culprit in Democrats’ poor performance among rural voters.

The criticism clouded the potential for Vilsack to be a consensus choice to lead the USDA. Working for two terms under President Obama, Vilsack was the longest-serving agriculture secretary in half a century. It would be remarkable to return under a different president for another stint at USDA, potentially pushing his tenure to 12 years. Wilson was agriculture secretary for 16 years under three presidents from 1897-1913, the longest run of any cabinet member.

Vilsack, a prominent rural and farm advocate for President-elect Biden during the fall campaign, was the latest front-runner at the USDA. If two previous favorites, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, were proxies for the tug of war between centrist and progressive Democrats, Vilsack represents the party’s search for a winning message in rural America.

President Trump won the rural vote by a 2-to-1 margin last month, slightly expanding on his 2016 performance. During the Obama years, Vilsack, a two-term governor of Iowa, called for greater rural outreach by Democrats, to explain the party’s proposals and to align Democrats with rural views. Heitkamp, defeated for re-election in 2018, was a founder of the One Country Project, with a similar mission.

“This is just Democrats doubling and tripling down on a losing strategy,” said Shawn Sebastian of People’s Action, which says it operates the largest progressive rural organizing project in the nation. “The most popular messages in rural America are populist, anti-corporate messages with 80 percent and above approval for ‘Corporate lobbyists have too much influence over the government.’ But rural voters are conflicted whether it’s Rs or Ds who can deliver,” said Sebastian on social media.

“America needs an agriculture secretary that will finally prioritize sustainable family farming and national food security over corporate profits,” said Mitch Jones of the consumer group Food and Water Watch.

However, congressional candidates with a progressive platform, such as JD Scholten in Iowa, struggled in this year’s general election. No House Republican incumbents were defeated.

Biden was leaning toward nominating Vilsack for agriculture secretary, according to four unnamed sources familiar with the discussions, reported Politico, which said Biden had not reached a decision and the selection process was still in flux. “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.”

Also mentioned were former deputy agriculture secretary Kathleen Merrigan, California agriculture secretary Karen Ross and former president of the United Farm Workers union, Arturo Rodriguez.

“I have a feeling this is still a work in progress,” said a farm lobbyist, who noted that Biden has promised a diverse cabinet.

Fudge allies “think Joe Biden is unlikely to pick her for agriculture secretary, risking a strain with the Congressional Black Caucus as it seeks to turn the agency from farmer-focused to consumer-focused,” reported Axios on Monday night.

Traditionally, presidents-elect try to announce all of their cabinet nominees before the year-end holidays. Biden named California attorney general Xavier Becerra as his choice for health secretary on Monday, his fourth cabinet selection. He said he intends to announce nominees for attorney general and defense secretary this week.

Agriculture tends to part of the second or third round of cabinet appointments, following the key posts at the Justice, Treasury, State and Defense departments. Trump did not announce Sonny Perdue as his nominee for agriculture secretary until the day before his inauguration in 2017.

Vilsack become president of the trade-promoting U.S. Dairy Export Council after the Obama administration left office.