Catching up on transition news of particular importance to Iowa, yesterday Trump’s team finally announced that former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue will lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Perdue had long been considered a front-runner for the last cabinet position to be filled, but Trump delayed the selection for weeks in an apparent scramble to find a Latino. (He is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to appoint any Latinos to a cabinet-level position.)
The only Iowans Trump has tapped for important jobs so far are Sam Clovis, who is heading the transition at USDA, future U.S. Ambassador to China Governor Terry Branstad, and Eric Branstad, in line to become White House liaison to the Commerce Department. (By some accounts, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Steven Colloton is on Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Senator Chuck Grassley had expressed concern about the delay in choosing a secretary of agriculture and specifically about rumored efforts to find someone other than a white man for the job. He didn’t sound pleased about the Perdue appointment either.
Half a dozen Iowans joined Trump’s “agricultural advisory committee” during the presidential campaign, but only one of them was ever in contention to be secretary of agriculture: Bruce Rastetter, who met with transition officials at Trump Tower in December. Rastetter’s name quickly fell out of most chatter about the USDA job amid reports that the president-elect was interviewing Latinos, even as he leaned toward Perdue.
Although Grassley did show up for Rastetter’s Iowa Ag Summit in 2015, the two men aren’t close. Rastetter’s ties to Iowa’s senior senator are nothing like his influence over Governor Terry Branstad, with whom he talks at least once a week, sometimes giving instructions. Last year, Grassley endorsed Representative Steve King for re-election, well aware that Rastetter was backing King’s primary challenger, State Senator Rick Bertrand.
In fact, the bad blood between Rastetter and Grassley goes back to when State Representatives Pat Grassley (the senator’s grandson) and Annette Sweeney (Rastetter’s childhood friend) were thrown into the same Iowa House district following the 2010 census. Rastetter was by far the largest donor to the Team Iowa PAC, which ran attack ads against Grassley and gave Sweeney’s campaign a lot of money during her 2012 primary race.
Pat Grassley won easily and took over as Iowa House Agriculture Committee chair once Sweeney was out of the picture. Since then, he has moved up to the top position on House Appropriations, and many Iowa politics watchers have expected him to run for secretary of agriculture when Bill Northey vacates that position to seek higher office. Northey was almost certainly the unnamed Republican whom Senator Grassley encouraged to run for U.S. Senate in 2013. He took himself out of contention early.
Northey seemed like a sure bet to seek the GOP nomination for governor in 2018, but he ruled out that race immediately after realizing Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds would be the incumbent once Branstad leaves for China.
Those developments likely explain Senator Grassley’s late push to get Northey on Trump’s cabinet short list. On January 8, he tweeted, “Still do not hv Ag Secy picked. Why don’t THEY settle on a gr8 VOICE FOR AGRICULTURE BILL NORTHEY Iowa secretary of Ag for 10 yrs.” Sadly for the Grassley family, Northey was never vetted by the Trump transition team. Unless Northey retires rather than seeking re-election in 2018, Pat Grassley has no apparent path to becoming a statewide office-holder before attempting to succeed his grandfather in 2022. Reynolds may pick a state lawmaker to be her lieutenant governor, but I’d be surprised if she chose Grassley.
As Gavin Aronsen described at Iowa Informer, Senator Grassley wasn’t happy about reports that the president-elect was looking to up the cabinet’s diversity by appointing a woman or a Latino for agriculture secretary. He needn’t have worried. But Perdue wasn’t the white man he was looking for. Yesterday Grassley didn’t sound pleased: “Now that a person fr Southern Ag being named Ag Secy I’m interested in how MidWest Ag will hv a seat at the table.”
Grassley, Senator Joni Ernst, and various leaders of agricultural interest groups discussed Perdue’s nomination wth the Des Moines Register. Donnelle Eller reported,
“It’s more of a regional thing,” Grassley said. “I’ve had California and Southern secretaries of agriculture, and I never feel as comfortable with them as I do when we have someone from the Midwest, Republican or Democrat.
“I just feel that the institution of the family farm from New York through the Plains states is a form of agriculture that tends to be different than what it is in California and the South. But how do I know until I talk to him?” Grassley told the Register.
Perdue is “a veterinarian so he knows something about agriculture, unless he’s one of these cat — is he a cat veterinarian?”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Perdue will face tough questioning as he moves through confirmation hearings.
“Of course I’d prefer someone from the Midwest, certainly,” she said. “I think all of us, I don’t care what state you’re from, those of us involved heavily in agriculture, we all hope it’s going to be someone from our own state.”
But “the fact that he does come from a state that grows important crops — whether it’s cotton, peanuts, peaches, whatever it might be — he has a strong background” in ag, she said.
Wake up, Iowa Republicans. Trump doesn’t care about agricultural policy. He said almost nothing about food or farm issues during the campaign, and he’s promised to block trade agreements that would help Iowa’s farm sector, according to agribusiness and their lobbying groups.
I can’t get too worked up about Perdue, though. Given some of Trump’s horror-show cabinet appointments, the USDA will be the least of our worries.