Get ready for a competitive GOP secretary of agriculture race

Craig Lang didn’t wait for Governor Kim Reynolds to decide. He is running for Iowa secretary of agriculture, no matter whom Reynolds picks to replace Bill Northey.

In his first comments to journalists about his campaign, Lang advocated more crop diversity and better land management practices, asserting that the dominant approach to farming in Iowa is not “sustainable.” That’s an unusual message for a Republican. Stranger still is hearing a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation talk about soil health in terms more often heard from environmental experts than from Big Ag heavyweights.

Though he’s a first-time candidate, Lang has plenty of political connections and should have little trouble raising enough money for a credible statewide primary campaign against State Representative Pat Grassley or other contenders.

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More names surface as contenders for Iowa secretary of agriculture

Governor Kim Reynolds is considering at least four Republican farmers–all current or former state lawmakers– to replace Bill Northey as Iowa secretary of agriculture, James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette today. In addition to State Representative Pat Grassley and former State Representative Annette Sweeney, whom Bleeding Heartland discussed here, State Senators Dan Zumbach and Tim Kapucian are in the running, according to Lynch’s story.

“I’ve had a couple conversations with governor about it,” Zumbach, 56, said Wednesday between meetings on housing development and soybean production. “I’d certainly be available and honored” if appointed to fill out Northey’s term that runs through early 2019. The position will be on the statewide ballot in 2018.

Zumbach, whose “heart, soul and passion has always been in agriculture,” said serving as state secretary of agriculture would be an “opportunity to share my lifetime of experience to guide Iowa agriculture in a good direction.”

Zumbach chairs the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee, having previously served as its ranking Republican. Kapucian, who has long served on the Senate Agriculture committee, “could not immediately be reached for comment” by Lynch. As the top Republican on the chamber’s Transportation Committee, he was a strong voice for raising the gasoline tax in order to fund better maintenance of farm-to-market roads. Grassley and Sweeney are both former leaders of the Iowa House Agriculture Committee and confirmed their interest in Northey’s job to Lynch.

Iowa law gives Reynolds the authority to fill Northey’s current position after he resigns upon confirmation to a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture post. The person she selects will be heavily favored–if challenged at all–in next year’s GOP primary for secretary of agriculture.

Choosing a relatively low-profile lawmaker like Zumbach or Kapucian would allow the governor to avoid taking sides between Republican power-broker Bruce Rastetter (a major donor to Reynolds and decades-long friend of Sweeney’s) and Senator Chuck Grassley (Pat Grassley’s grandfather). The downside for Reynolds: that path could anger both Rastetter and the elder Grassley.

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Bill Northey's heading to the USDA. Who will take his place?

President Donald Trump has officially nominated Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey to a senior position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In another sign of this administration’s lack of basic competence, the USDA’s news release says Northey will be Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, while the statement from the White House says he will be Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services. (See excerpts enclosed below, along with Northey’s official biography.)

Either way, U.S. Senate confirmation should be smooth sailing, clearing a path for Governor Kim Reynolds to appoint a new secretary of agriculture later this year or in early 2018. The appointee would presumably be a prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination next spring.

This thread is for any speculation about successors to Northey. A few months ago, I thought State Representative Pat Grassley was a lock for the job. He was seen as a likely candidate for secretary of agriculture in 2014 or 2018, had Northey run for higher office. His grandfather, Senator Chuck Grassley, is co-chairing the Reynolds campaign for governor.

And yet: ever since Pat Grassley tweeted last week that he was “not convinced” a state tax incentives package worth $400,000 per long-term job created by Apple was “good value for Iowa taxpayers,” I’ve been wondering whether he and the governor had a falling out. Perhaps word reached him that Reynolds is leaning toward someone else for secretary of agriculture. The governor has been talking up the Apple deal as a major accomplishment. Her chief of staff, Jake Ketzner, is not known for showing tolerance toward Republicans who criticize or question his boss.

Former State Representative Annette Sweeney could be a contender. She’s executive director of the Iowa Angus Association, having previously headed a public policy group called Iowa Agri-Women. Before that, she served as Iowa House Agriculture Committee chair and floor-managed the country’s first “Ag Gag” bill.

The political map drawn up after the 2010 census put Sweeney and Pat Grassley in the same legislative district, and she lost a tough, expensive 2012 primary widely viewed as a proxy war between Bruce Rastetter and Senator Grassley. The two Iowa Republican powerhouses were on opposite sides again during last year’s GOP primary in the fourth Congressional district.

Sweeney is a childhood friend of Rastetter, who has been a major donor to Reynolds and before that, had tremendous influence over her mentor, Governor Terry Branstad (see also here). Reynolds’ chief of staff Ketzner became a senior adviser to Chris Christie’s presidential campaign around the same time Rastetter endorsed the New Jersey governor.

Iowa Democrats do not have a declared 2018 candidate for secretary of agriculture yet. Northey narrowly defeated Denise O’Brien in his first statewide election, then won his second and third terms by comfortable majorities.

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Bill Northey, Sam Clovis lined up for senior USDA posts

Two weeks after Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey publicly expressed interest in a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he appears to have an offer on the table. Farm Journal Radio reported on May 12 that Northey will become undersecretary for farm production and conservation, a position that “includes overseeing the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.” The source was Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president of policy and trade issues for Informa Economics Inc. WHO-TV’s Dave Price said his sources confirm Northey is the pick for that job. UPDATE: Agri-Pulse was first to report this news Friday morning.

Depending on when Northey resigns, either Governor Terry Branstad or soon-to-be-Governor Kim Reynolds will appoint someone to serve as secretary of agriculture until after the 2018 election. State Representative Pat Grassley has long been rumored to be interested in Northey’s job. That statewide position would be a nice stepping stone to a campaign for his grandfather Chuck Grassley’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

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Pat Grassley could be biggest winner if Bill Northey moves to USDA

A potential federal job for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey may provide a stepping stone for State Representative Pat Grassley.

Northey discussed ethanol policy at the White House on Tuesday during a round-table meeting with President Donald Trump and newly-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Reports of the event fueled speculation that Northey may soon move to a position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Speaking to Iowa reporters yesterday, Northey emphasized that no job offer is on the table but said of Perdue, “I certainly look forward to working with him. I don’t know what role that might be. […] I certainly would love to work with him as Iowa Secretary of Ag. If there’s another job offered, I’d be very willing to consider that as well.”

Trump put Iowa’s own Sam Clovis in charge of handling USDA appointments in January, after Clovis had served as his surrogate in some agricultural policy discussions during the campaign.

Northey has not clarified whether he plans to seek a fourth term as secretary of agriculture in 2018. He had been widely expected to run for governor next year but ruled that out immediately after Governor Terry Branstad agreed to serve as U.S. ambassador to China.

If Northey resigns before the end of his term, Iowa law calls for the governor to appoint a replacement to serve until the next election. The last time that process came into play, Branstad named Mary Mosiman as state auditor in 2013. She was unchallenged for the GOP nomination for that office the following year.

I would expect Grassley to lobby Branstad–or Kim Reynolds, if she is acting as governor by that time–for the secretary of agriculture position. The job would be a good way to increase his statewide profile with a view to running for his grandfather’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022. The elder Grassley wasn’t subtle about lobbying for Northey to get the top USDA job, presumably to clear a path for his grandson.

First elected to the Iowa House in 2006, the younger Grassley just completed his second year leading the House Appropriations Committee. He had previously chaired the House Agriculture Committee for three years and the Economic Growth/Rebuild Iowa Committee for two years before that.

I enclose below the official bios for Northey and Pat Grassley. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson posted the audio of Northey’s comments about a possible USDA position.

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Top Iowa Senate appropriator: No Water Works language in my spending bills

Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider has pledged not to include language dismantling the Des Moines Water Works in any spending bill this year.

Legislative action to transfer authority over the Des Moines Water Works from an independent board of trustees to area city councils was once seen as nearly a sure thing, thanks to strong support from the Iowa Farm Bureau. But Republican leaders never brought House File 484 up for debate before a legislative deadline in late March. The bill now sits on the “unfinished business” calendar, fueling speculation that it may rise from near-death before lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Governor Terry Branstad has been an outspoken critic of Des Moines Water Works leaders since the utility sued three northwest Iowa counties in 2015, demanding better enforcement of the Clean Water Act to reduce agricultural runoff. At the Waukee legislative forum on April 8, I asked Schneider about a rumor that Branstad has told House and Senate leaders to get the Water Works bill on his desk, and that such language may be attached to the “standings” bill in order to accomplish that end. The standings bill is typically among the last pieces of legislation considered each year and can become a grab bag of provisions power-brokers demand. Would Schneider commit not to add Water Works language to the standings bill or any other appropriations bill coming out of his committee?

Schneider: That’s the first I’ve heard of the standings rumor. It’s not going to go in my standings bill, and I’m not going to support a Water Works bill unless the Des Moines Water Works, West Des Moines Water Works, and Urbandale Water Works themselves–the utilities, not the cities, the utilities–tell me they would like to see some language in there to give them the ability to regionalize on their own.

Bleeding Heartland: So, you won’t put that in any appropriations bill.

Schneider: I’m not putting it in my standings bill.

Republican State Representative Rob Taylor responded to my question as well:

And I also sit on Appropriations on the House side now. I’m not the chair, but I wouldn’t support putting it in that standings bill either. I think that a bill with that kind of substance–although I will say, that the original bill, and the House version with the amendments from Representative [Jarad] Klein have changed substantially from the original bill–I think that’s a, that’s a critical enough bill for or against that it needs to stand on its own. And putting it on an appropriation is not appropriate, and I would fight tooth and nail to prevent it.

I enclose below the official video from yesterday’s Waukee forum. The relevant response from Schneider begins at 1:20:00.

Here’s hoping Schneider has the clout to keep Water Works language out of any final spending bills. He also serves as majority whip, the third-ranking Senate GOP leadership position. The three independent utilities Schneider mentioned oppose the Water Works bill. The city of Des Moines is still registered in favor of House File 484, but the city of West Des Moines changed its stance last month from “for” to “undecided.”

To my knowledge, most of the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have taken no public position on this legislation. I’m wary because Appropriations Chair Pat Grassley formerly chaired the Agriculture Committee, where the Water Works bill originated. Assisting the Farm Bureau’s revenge mission could bring political benefits to Grassley, who is widely expected to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture if Bill Northey does not seek re-election in 2018. A front group for the Farm Bureau called the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water ran radio ads supporting the Water Works legislation.

UPDATE: On Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program this weekend, O.Kay Henderson asked Senate President Jack Whitver, “Will the Iowa legislature dismantle the Des Moines Water Works?” After hesitating for a moment, Whitver answered simply, “No.”

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