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The Hunt for a New Secretary of Ag

In selecting a USDA nominee, experience and political instincts are key criteria.

Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Chris Christie devoted months to assembling a plan that only one of their bosses can use beginning November 9 – the checklist of policy announcements and personnel appointments to be made by the newly elected president. The transition teams chaired by Salazar, for Hillary Clinton, and Christie, for Donald Trump, set the tone for an incoming administration by fleshing out campaign planks and sifting for nominees to run the government. “There’s a huge corral of people we are looking at,” said Sam Clovis, Trump’s chief policy adviser, in September in a rare description of a transition team’s labors.

Agriculture saw little attention during the presidential campaign, so there are few clues of who Trump or Clinton want at USDA. Traditionally, presidents-elect settle first on nominees for the big cabinet posts, the state, treasury, judiciary, and defense departments. For the remainder, including USDA, a new president’s goals of diversity of gender and racial background in the cabinet can compete with ideology and the desire to thank key blocs. 

A few people have been mentioned for agriculture secretary in 2017: California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, and former deputy agriculture secretary Kathleen Merrigan in a Clinton administration; agribusinessmen Bruce Rastetter of Iowa and Charles Herbster of Nebraska in a Trump administration.

Nearly two generations ago, President Reagan appointed Illinois farmer Jack Block as agriculture secretary. The decision, the last time a farmer headed USDA, resonates to this day.

“I’ve always said, and it hasn’t always happened, somebody with dirt under their fingernails,” said Charles Grassley [R-IA] when asked what attributes he wants in USDA’s top executive. If not a farmer, he said, then someone who knows agriculture and can speak well for the sector.

“I put competence and experience at the top for selection of secretary of agriculture,” said John Schnittker. The former USDA official and longtime private consultant said political skills and connections also are at the top of the list.

Incoming administrations are always daunted by USDA’s breadth of jurisdiction, running from farm supports and ag research to public nutrition, conservation, and rural economic development, so they look for a deft manager with political common sense, said a White House official from the George W. Bush era.

“That is why governors rise to the top pretty quickly,” said the former official; governors spend their time overseeing bureaucracy and handling a welter of issues.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the fourth in a string of active or former governors to head USDA, took the same view. “If I were to offer advice, it would be to find a governor who cares deeply about rural areas and give them a chance to have this incredible job,” said Vilsack during a visit to Capitol Hill.

Whoever the president chooses, it’s important for the new secretary to have a solid connection with production agriculture, said the former Bush official. Above that, he said, the White House wants a problem solver who won’t hinder the president’s agenda – “a huge factor in what they’re looking for.”

Who do you think will be the next secretary of agriculture? Join in the discussion. 

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture and environmental health.

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