In the end, President-elect Donald Trump selected Sonny Perdue, the first person he interviewed for the job, to be agriculture secretary, filling the last vacancy in his cabinet. Trump was to announce the selection of Perdue, the first Republican elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, as early as today, transition officials told multiple news organizations.
A veterinarian, Perdue, 70, served two terms as governor and has run trucking and agricultural companies in middle Georgia since leaving office in 2011. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the second southerner to head the Agriculture Department. The first was Rep. Mike Espy of Mississippi, who also was the first black agriculture secretary, during the Clinton era.
The selection of Perdue means Trump, who interviewed half a dozen men and women for agriculture secretary, will be the first president without a Hispanic in his cabinet since 1988. Trump took longer to name his agriculture secretary than any president-elect since Franklin Roosevelt chose Henry Wallace in February 1933.
Zippy Duvall, the Georgia farmer who is president of the American Farm Bureau, said Perdue “was always very good in promoting agricultural products” and encouraged exports of all types as governor. Perdue was a friend of agriculture, Duvall recalled early this month at the AFBF convention. “He told me, and he told our farmers, you don’t have to come through the back door any more. You come in through the front door.”
Almost as soon as word began circulating, the AFBF said it “strongly endorses” Perdue for agriculture secretary and predicted Perdue, born and raised in rural America, will be a strong voice for agriculture. The National Chicken Council, speaking for the broiler industry, said, “As a veterinarian, agribusiness owner and a governor who established an agricultural advisory committee in Georgia, he understands and appreciates the importance of American agriculture both here and abroad.”
Perdue was the first person interviewed by Trump for the USDA post and since the start of January was regarded as frontrunner for the job. “He asked me what my skill sets were and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a business person and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally,” Perdue told reporters after the Nov. 30 meeting at Trump Tower, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And he lit up … He knew what it takes to make America great again by doing the things we do well, which is agriculture for one, and to free up farmers from the regulations that we see. He was spot-on on those issues.”
A Democrat who switched to Republican while in the state Senate, Perdue was in the vanguard of flipping Georgia to GOP control. As governor, he was a conservative on immigration and voting rights. Immigration may be a top issue in his new job, considering Trump’s vows to deport illegal immigrants and American agriculture’s reliance of farm labor believed to be undocumented for the most part.
Trump’s agriculture secretary will begin work with congressional Republicans aiming to make large cuts in public nutrition programs, and some Tea Party-influenced lawmakers wanting to curtail farm subsidies as well. House Republicans have voted repeatedly, but without success, to convert food stamps, the largest U.S. anti-hunger program, into a block grant for states to run. Congress deadlocked over an update of the school lunch program in 2016, so that issue remains on the table.
Cotton and dairy farmers say the 2014 farm law has failed to protect them from low market prices and must be improved at the same time corn and soybean farmers complain about subsidy payment rates that vary widely county to county. Congress is due to write a farm bill in 2018 at a period when farm income is comparatively low and there is little reason to believe larger federal funding will be available.
The long delay in naming a secretary led to grumbling in farm country and questions about whether Trump was slighting the rural voters who were key to his election. Published reports said there were arguments in the Trump camp over whether to seek more diversity in a cabinet dominated by older white males or to seek a nominee familiar with mechanized and highly capitalized “production agriculture” that produces the bulk of U.S. food, feed and fiber.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley tweeted earlier in the day, “‘Frustr8ing read abt transition to AgSecy. PRETTY SIMPLE:AgSecy not abt social engineering NEED Ag leader w dirt under finger nails 4farmers”
Ricardo Salvador, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the avowed spokesmen for American agriculture represent “just a sliver of already wealthy and politically entrenched agribusiness interests,” not the majority of U.S. farmers, who have small and medium-size farms. Large farms, with more than $1 million in annual sales, are 4 percent of the farming population, he said.
Former California lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, promoted as the Hispanic alternative to Perdue, thanked the Trump team in a series of tweets for considering him and said, “America can rest assured that the USDA will be in good hands with Governor Sonny Perdue.”
A first cousin, Georgia Sen. David Perdue, is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings on the USDA nominee.