More reaction to Vilsack as head of the USDA (updated)

Barack Obama will officially announce today that he is nominating Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Vilsack said last month that he was not being vetted for any position in Obama’s cabinet. According to the Des Moines Register, Vilsack

was notified Thursday that Obama wanted to meet with him at the presidential transition headquarters in Chicago, sources close to the transition said.

Obama and Vilsack met Friday, after which the Iowan was offered the position.

I have to say, they did a pretty good job keeping that under wraps for three days.

Senator Tom Harkin will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

Iowans from both parties expect Vilsack’s appointment to benefit Iowa:

Iowa Department of Economic Development Director Mike Tramontina said Vilsack, as agriculture secretary, would benefit Iowa in multiple ways.

Tramontina, a Democrat and Vilsack supporter, said the department is the primary source of federal money for the state. Its effect on commodities and trade, renewable energy, water quality and, more immediately, flood control, would be magnified with Vilsack at the helm, he predicted.

“We’ll have someone there who understands Iowa’s animal agriculture, a person who understands Iowa’s topography, its rivers and streams and its small towns,” Tramontina said.

“To have someone like Tom Vilsack, who understands Iowa the way he does, is going to be a tremendous benefit to us.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, a Republican, had kind words for Vilsack.

“It’s nice to have an Iowan in this job,” Northey said. “He understands what’s going on in agriculture. He’s a quick study, and I think Iowans will have good access in the USDA.”

Chuck Grassley must be happy to have Vilsack out of the running for the 2010 Senate election:

One top Iowa Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, sounded relieved in a statement he released Tuesday night. “This comes as a surprise since about three weeks ago Governor Vilsack stated that he was not in contention for the job, but it sure isn’t a surprise because of his qualifications,” Grassley said.

“As governor of Iowa, he had a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy. I’m happy for him, happy for Iowa, and this is welcome news for agriculture.”

David Yepsen views this appointment as “a nice political thank you to Iowa,” adding

It’s less clear what Vilsack, a trial lawyer by training, brings to the job. He has never been a dirt-under-the-fingernails farmer. A policy wonk, he won’t be much for those backslapping visits to farm shows and state fairs, which is often the fate of an ag secretary.

What’s wrong with having a policy wonk run this department? The job should go to someone who can do more than fit in at farm shows and state fairs. Remember, the USDA

also covers food production and safety, as well as the Food Stamp Program. Vilsack is expected to work with Harkin next year as the reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program, which includes subsidized meals for low-income students, comes up for reauthorization.

“We have to focus on nutrition, and I look forward to working with Sen. Harkin on this,” Vilsack said.

I didn’t realize the school lunch program was up for reauthorization next year.

Anyway, my point is that there’s no reason Obama shouldn’t appoint a policy wonk for this job. If Vilsack had done more to support sustainable agriculture while he was governor, I would feel great about this appointment. As it is, I think he will be a good manager but will just continue the status quo in our agriculture policies, which from my perspective are not ideal for our economy, environment or health.

On that note, John Nichols of The Nation is not thrilled with Obama’s choice:

Vilsack is a capable administrator with the right partisan credentials.

But he only moved to the top of the list of Agriculture secretary prospects because he is a prominent Democrat who comes from what Washington insiders know as a “farm state.” As governor of Iowa, Vilsack had to engage with farm issues. But that embrace was anything but inspired. Family farm activists, fair-trade campaigners and advocates for organic foods were regularly disappointed by the stands he took. The Organic Consumers Association was blunt, declaring: “Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a schill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto.” […]

Obama could have done better, much better. […]

More competitive — and still quite appealing — was Tom Buis, the president of the National Farmers Union, who was an early and wise counselor for the president-elect. Buis, an Indiana farmer who has also served as an aide to top Democrats in the Senate, has over the past several years been in the thick of every major debate about farm and food policy. He knows the issues and, for the most part, he has been on the right side of them, although critics of ethanol initiatives will find fault with his advocacy on that front.

Unlike the Farm Bureau, a conservative grouping that has historically aligned with corporate agribusiness interests and Wall Street, the Farmers Union has for a century represented working farmers and Main Street. In recent years, Buis and the NFU have emerged as key players in advancing fresh thinking about farm and food issues: supporting the development of organic farming, backing the development of farmers’ markets and local food programs, promoting country-of-origin labeling and other food safety initiatives, and battling the commodities speculators that have driven up global food prices.

Nichols expressed hope that Vilsack will tap either Buis or “sharp state official[s]” for senior posts within the USDA. Strong contenders include Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen, North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Roger Johnson, former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Sarah Vogel, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Natasha Chart’s assessment is worth reading.

At La Vida Locavore, Jill Richardson explains in detail why she opposes putting genetically-modified organisms in food. Vilsack has been a prominent advocate of GMOs and “pharmacrops.”

UPDATE: Congressman Dave Loebsack released this statement:

“Governor Tom Vilsack is an outstanding choice as the next Secretary of Agriculture, I can think of no better person to serve our nation in this capacity.  Governor Vilsack is a proven leader and he possesses a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing rural America.  As Secretary of Agriculture, Governor Vilsack will be able to draw on his experience and knowledge to protect family farms, support rural communities, and end our nation’s dependence on foreign oil by bolstering the production of bio-fuels and other renewable sources of energy.  Iowans are proud of Governor Vilsack, and excited by the opportunity to have one of our own serve as a cabinet secretary in the new Obama Administration.”

Congressman Bruce Braley released this statement:

“My friend Tom Vilsack is a great choice for Secretary of Agriculture, and I’m glad to see that an Iowan will play a major role in President Obama’s administration.  Governor Vilsack knows agriculture and is a strong supporter of renewable energy and biofuels.  I can’t think of a more qualified and capable candidate for the job,” said Rep. Bruce Braley.

If Congressman Leonard Boswell’s office sends me a statement, I would be happy to post that as well.

  • Big Show call-in about Vilsack

    Earlier today, the Big Show (a statewide ag radio program) had a call-in segment about Vilsack’s nomination.  Of the six or seven calls they took, only one was favorable, one was luke warm, and the rest were incredibly hostile towards Vilsack.  I was really surprised by the level of animosity, and so was the host, Ken Root.

    A few people mentioned that Vilsack had never been a farmer, which is true enough, but the general tone was contempt for liberals and politicians.  One crazy guy said Vilsack was pro-homosexual, and the host had to interrupt him to refocus on ag issues.  No one said anything about Vilsack’s support for GMO crops, or ethanol.  Although the callers viewed him as anti-livestock, there weren’t any new CAFO regulations during his terms as Governor.  

    I just don’t know where the anger is coming from, especially considering that the nomination has received public support from Grassley, Northey, and Republican State Committeman Monte Shaw.  All in all, it was a strange segment.

    • presumably the show's listening audience

      skews Republican, so they have their own reasons for not liking Vilsack.

      They probably don’t understand that having an Iowan in the job is the best insurance against their own subsidies getting cut.

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