Women dominate list of potential nominees for agriculture secretary

Obama-era officials and lawmakers top the list of potential nominees for agriculture secretary in the Biden administration, and, for the first time, most of the contenders are women. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, cofounder of the One Country Project to boost Democratic support in rural America, was the most frequently mentioned name.

Also circulating were California state Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine, and Delaware state Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse.

Although Washington is enchanted with the parlor game of guessing presidential nominees, there are few if any templates for the USDA. Governors, lawmakers, academics, and the occasional farmer have been agriculture secretary over the years. Few of the selections have been obvious in recent decades, with the possible exception of Ann Veneman, the first and only woman to serve as agriculture secretary, in George W. Bush’s first term.

For good reason, presidents-elect make their selections for the big jobs — Treasury, State, Justice, and Defense — before filling out the rest of the cabinet. By that point, they try to mesh their goals of gender and racial diversity in the cabinet with political ideology and the desire to reward key voting blocks.

Agriculture usually is a second- or third-round choice. Sonny Perdue was President Trump’s final cabinet nominee, announced the day before his inauguration in 2017.

Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary throughout the Obama era, campaigned prominently for Biden and shaped the careers of a number of potential nominees. He may play a role in deciding who gets the job with Biden.

Ross, the California agriculture secretary, was chief of staff while Vilsack was agriculture secretary. Krysta Harden was deputy agriculture secretary, Vilsack’s number two, for three years and now is chief operating officer at the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Scuse was the No. 3 official at USDA, overseeing the farm program and agricultural trade, with Vilsack.

Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was defeated for re-election in 2018 after a career that included 16 years in statewide offices in North Dakota. She met President-elect Trump soon after the 2016 election and briefly was mentioned as a possible Trump nominee for Agriculture, Energy or Interior secretary. The move would have opened a Senate seat for Republicans. Instead, Heitkamp stayed in the Senate and lost to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in the midterm elections.

In April 2019, Heitkamp and former Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, another Senate Agriculture Committee member defeated in the 2018 elections, launched the One Country Project “to help their party win back rural voters ahead of the 2020 cycle,” as Axios described it. The problem was well-known: The Democratic share of the rural vote was declining. Trump carried rural America in landslide numbers in 2016, offsetting Democratic margins in cities.

The initiative may have delivered mixed results; modest rural gains in Michigan and Wisconsin helped Biden carry those battleground states but there was little change in Ohio, according to analyses by the Daily Yonder. Trump drubbed Biden in rural Pennsylvania, but a large voter turnout helped Biden compile enough votes to win the state.

Pingree is an organic farmer and a member of the House Agriculture and Appropriations committees, an unusual combination of assignments that gives her a hand in food and agriculture policy as well as USDA funding. She has introduced bills to reduce food waste and to expand the role of small meat processors. Pingree is a favorite of activist farm groups and opponents of agricultural consolidation.

Fudge is one of the foremost advocates in Congress for public nutrition programs such as SNAP. As chair of the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, she called hearings last summer into shortcomings in the Trump administration’s food-box giveaway program. Fudge also has been mentioned as a possible candidate to chair the House Agriculture Committee.

One of the few Midwestern Democrats in House leadership, Bustos headed the party’s campaign committee this year. She won re-election by 3 points in a tighter-than-expected race.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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