As part of progressives' broader battle to push President-elect Joe Biden to claim his "FDR moment" by choosing a Cabinet well-equipped to tackle the nexus of crises the country currently faces, more than 160 organizations came together Tuesday to oppose former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The coalition of environmental, social justice, sustainable agriculture, labor, animal welfare, public health, family farmer, consumer advocacy, and anti-hunger groups sent a letter (pdf) to Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and their transition team detailing Heitkamp's political record as well as her ties to agribusiness and fossil fuels.
Although she is considered the frontrunner to become Biden's agriculture secretary, "progressives have knives out for Heitkamp," Politico reported Monday. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) has expressed interest in the job and progressives have also pointed to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) or Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) as possible picks.
"Heitkamp is the wrong choice for the USDA because she has aligned herself with corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers, supports fossil fuel interests, and holds views that are out of step with the Democratic Party and the majority of Americans," says the letter, spearheaded by Friends of the Earth (FOE).
"There will be a big fight on Heitkamp if Biden puts her name forward," Kari Hamerschlag, FOE's deputy director of food and agriculture, told Politico. In a statement Tuesday, Hamerschlag added that "if President-elect Biden is serious about meeting his climate goals, he cannot name Heitkamp as USDA secretary."
BREAKING: 160+ groups are calling on @JoeBiden to withdraw Heidi Heitkamp from consideration for USDA Sec. To create a healthy, sustainable food system we need a Secretary who protects family farmers & environment — not corporate, industrial agribusiness.https://t.co/twYXOTH3NQ
— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@foe_us) November 17, 2020
Other signatories to the letter include 350.org, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network, the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, the HEAL Food Alliance, People's Action, and Family Farm Action—which last week put out a comprehensive plan detailing how the Biden administration can bring "economic vitality to rural communities in the face of racial injustice, economic decline, climate change, and a devastating pandemic."
"Facing excessive monopoly control of their markets and climate change, our farmers and ranchers need a USDA leader who has the experience and the vision to build a new resilient food system that works for farmers, workers, and local and regional businesses throughout the food system," Joe Maxwell, president of Family Farm Action, said Tuesday. "During her tenure in the U.S. Senate, Heidi Heitkamp has proven she is not that leader; she is part of the problem, not the solution."
"During her tenure in the U.S. Senate, Heidi Heitkamp has proven she is not that leader; she is part of the problem, not the solution."
—Joe Maxwell, Family Farm Action
The groups cite Heitkamp's history of taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and agribusiness giants including Bayer-Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Syngenta, and Cargill. They also highlight that she "led legislation that exacerbated concentration in the agriculture sector, eased regulations on factory farms, and thwarted progress on combating climate change."
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In addition to "boasting about" cutting food stamps for poor families, the letter continues, Heitkamp "helped lead negotiations on a Farm Bill that widened subsidy loopholes for wealthy mega-farms and exacerbated concentration in agriculture," and even sponsored an amendment to expand industry check-off marketing programs criticized by independent farmers and ranchers for "unfairly benefiting" Big Ag.
As Navina Khanna of the HEAL Food Alliance put it: "Heitkamp's track record speaks for itself: she cares more about corporations than communities." Khanna called on the incoming Biden administration "to name a USDA secretary who understands the urgency of the moment and will think and act with that in mind—with care for independent farmers, the food system's essential workers, and families all over that are struggling to make ends meet."
Given that Heitkamp "is in the pocket of corporate ag, fossil fuels, and the health insurance industry," warned People's Action director George Goehl, "appointing her would confirm people's fears that Democrats are controlled by the same corporate puppet strings as Republicans. If Democrats want to start winning a larger share of the rural vote, they have to cut the puppet strings and stand with everyday people."
America just gave @JoeBiden a mandate to aggressively tackle the climate crisis. That means a Big Ag defender like @HeidiHeitkamp — who prioritizes corporate agribusiness & fossil fuel interests over environment — is the wrong choice for USDA Secretary.https://t.co/9n9lSGyO0l
— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@foe_us) November 17, 2020
The letter explains that Heitkamp cosponsored legislation to roll back environmental regulations, expand drilling on public lands, and ease air quality regulations on factory farms, along with seeking to "weaken longstanding conservation measures on subsidized agricultural lands." She also supported the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and broke with Democrats to back President Donald Trump's nomination of Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
With his win on November 3, Biden faces a mandate from voters and advocacy groups to act boldly to address climate chaos. "Heitkamp's environmental record and support of the fossil fuel industry should disqualify her from leading an agency that is crucial to President-elect Biden's bold plan to fight climate change," the letter charges.
After losing her reelection race to a Republican in North Dakota in 2018, Heitkamp "used leftover campaign funds to start an organization that urges Democrats to move to the right on a range of issues, including climate change," the letter notes. "The group is run out of a D.C. lobbying firm that works on behalf of Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Tech, and the fossil fuel industry."
"Tapping Heitkamp for this position in the Biden administration would enable the continuation of disastrous Trump-era food and farm policies, jeopardize President-elect Biden's climate goals, and boost corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers, frontline communities, the environment, hungry families, and animal welfare," the groups conclude. "We need a USDA secretary that we can fully trust to deliver a healthy, just, and sustainable food system."
Rather than selecting the former senator, the letter urges Biden to pick "one of the many other highly qualified candidates—including several women candidates and candidates of color—without ties to agribusiness and fossil fuels." More broadly, the groups call on him to "refrain from nominating any agribusiness or fossil fuel industry lobbyists and senior executives or members of Congress who have taken major campaign contributions from agribusiness or fossil fuel companies, PACs, or lobbyists."