Lawmakers and industry leaders are pushing new candidates in the race for Agriculture secretary as the Biden transition team seems to be at an impasse between the leading names in the race: former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp or Rep. Marcia Fudge.
For weeks, food and agriculture leaders have assumed that the pick will come down to either Heitkamp or Fudge.
Now, two other prominent agricultural leaders are being aggressively pushed by allies: Kathleen Merrigan, a USDA veteran who was deputy secretary in the Obama administration, and Arturo Rodriguez, past longtime leader of the United Farm Workers union. Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a loyal Biden surrogate, is also now a possibility.
The Biden transition team was on the verge of announcing the selection of Heitkamp early last week, four people familiar with the deliberations said. But then, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who has been pushing for Fudge, gave several media interviews publicly criticizing Biden for a lack of diversity among his first round of Cabinet appointees, and the race is now considered more open.
A spokesperson for the Biden transition declined to comment.
While Heitkamp and Fudge are still thought to be under serious consideration, the field is widening as insiders see a potential opening for alternatives.
“The opening of the field and the delay in a decision is reflective of the broad range of issues that the department deals with and the reality that no one person does it all,” said Eric Kessler, founder of philanthropic consulting firm Arabella Advisors, who’s credited with recruiting Vilsack to lead USDA in the Obama administration.
Leading the $150 billion Agriculture Department had previously been regarded as a low-ranking post in the Cabinet despite its sprawling mission. But it has now become a sought-after job as USDA is considered central to the Covid-19 response, by helping to feed millions of Americans in need, and as a major player in the Biden administration’s climate change agenda.
The tug-of-war between Heitkamp, a moderate Senate Democrat who represented North Dakota before losing reelection in 2018, and Fudge, a senior lawmaker who actively campaigned for Biden, has reflected the intraparty battle between moderate and progressive Democrats.
The clash also falls in the middle of a broader discussion about diversity in Biden’s Cabinet, which Black, Asian American and Hispanic leaders are warning is so far falling short. Clyburn, a close Biden ally and the most senior Black House lawmaker, carries significant weight with the transition team.
In his interviews, Clyburn criticized Biden’s early Cabinet picks for not being diverse enough even as he noted he wanted to see the process play out. Two people familiar with the situation said it was news of Heitkamp’s imminent announcement that prompted Clyburn to speak out, with one person calling it “the last straw” for the South Carolina Democrat.
A Clyburn spokesperson disputed the notion, however, that any developments over the Agriculture secretary pick prompted the congressman to speak out, saying there was “no truth” to the idea.
Still, Clyburn’s comments have led to numerous warnings from lawmakers and advocacy groups over diversity in the highest ranks of the incoming Biden administration.
Those concerns motivated the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to ramp up public support this week for Rodriguez, whose allies say that his experience expanding union membership among farm workers and negotiating agreements with farm groups who are typically at odds with labor interests make him well suited for the job.
“He knows the operations of the industry,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “What he would bring that is historically unique is a particular experience with labor in agriculture.”
Rodriguez has some influential supporters on the Hill, such as Rep. Joaquín Castro, who said on Thursday that “it’s time for a Latino secretary of Agriculture.” Two UFW leaders are also on Biden’s transition team: Current president Teresa Romero and Andrea Delgado, government affairs director.
Meanwhile, some progressives who were initially backing Fudge have switched their preference to Merrigan, the No. 2 at USDA during Obama’s first term.
Merrigan, now executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, is regarded by some as a middle ground choice between Heitkamp and Fudge who could bring together opposing factions of the food and agriculture lobbies.
While at USDA, Merrigan had a notably high profile for a deputy, while spearheading sustainability and local and regional food systems. A veteran of several farm bills, she’s also credited with being an architect of the organic program and has good rapport with many of the traditional commodity groups.
Merrigan is also a former staffer for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the most senior Democrat in the Senate. That has allowed her to maintain close relationships with many Hill offices, which would be valuable during a confirmation process and beyond. Some lawmakers have in recent days and weeks been urging the transition team to consider Merrigan for the top job.
Yet in recent days, there’s also been more discussion about the serious possibility of Vilsack taking the job, which he held for eight years during the Obama administration. The former Iowa governor, who advised Biden on all things rural during the campaign, is expected to land a senior job in the incoming administration.
Various officials have suggested that Vilsack may end up in a different role, such as becoming a senior White House adviser, leading a new rural envoy, or serving as U.S. trade representative.
President-elect Joe Biden this week hinted that he’s acutely aware that Democrats are not in a good place with rural voters, who supported president Trump by large margins in 2016 and 2020. In an interview with The New York Times, Biden suggested he would not leave rural America behind.
“You know, it really does go to the issue of dignity, how you treat people,” Biden said. “I think they just feel forgotten. I think we forgot them.”
“I respect them,” Biden added, noting he plans to respond to Covid-19 everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they supported him for president.
The comments, which echo concerns that have been raised by Vilsack and others over the past decade, were seen by some as a sign that Biden is more likely to pick a moderate to lead USDA, to help bridge the growing divide between urban and rural voters.
Even Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has waded into the debate by endorsing moderate contenders, declaring on Twitter Wednesday that Biden should pick “an Iowan or Heidi Heitkamp or Collin Peterson to be Ag Secretary. They’d be able to get things done for IA/Midwest farmers even w Democratic House & Republican Senate.”
Kessler, an influential Democrat who’s been hosting large stakeholder calls with many of the contenders, said the fact that there are so many qualified candidates seeking the post is a welcome sign, but the policy issues are so broad at USDA he’s urging groups to think about “a slate of leaders, not just the individual [nominee].”
The candidate calls, which are part of what’s known as the Farm to Fork initiative, have drawn great interest. Vilsack is scheduled to talk to the group on Friday, and Rodriguez will speak with them next week. Fudge and Heitkamp have recently addressed the left-leaning group.
Other top leadership roles at the department are being sought after, including: deputy secretary, chief of staff, and deputy chief of staff. Any USDA leadership team will be charged with tackling important policy priorities including nutrition, agriculture, racial equity and climate, and any slate of top leaders is very likely to include people of color.
Janie Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, a highly respected USDA veteran who led the department’s work with tribes during the Obama administration, is a name that often comes up for the No. 2 slot, an influential role that’s historically played a big part in the day-to-day operations of the department. Hipp is currently serving on the Biden transition team for the Interior Department.
Karen Ross, California’s secretary of agriculture, is also discussed as a strong candidate for deputy. She knows USDA well, having served as chief of staff under Vilsack, and is well-regarded in California, which is the biggest agriculture state by value. Ross has also led the state’s trailblazing work on climate change in agriculture, an issue that’s expected to be a major focus at the department under Biden.
The agriculture sector accounts for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions but is increasingly viewed as having significant potential to both cut and offset emissions by paying farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to sequester carbon.
Names that come up for chief of staff or deputy chief of staff include: Robert Bonnie, a former Obama USDA official and climate expert who’s leading the Biden agriculture transition team; Walter Hill, dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee University; Joe Schultz, Democratic staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee; and Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports and former deputy under secretary of food safety at USDA.
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