President-elect Joe Biden's reported decision to nominate Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture was met with immediate backlash from progressives, who argued the former Iowa governor's industry-friendly record as Obama's USDA chief should have disqualified him from returning to the role.
A coalition of environmental organizations and sustainable farming advocates had urged Biden to choose Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to head the Agriculture Department, but the president-elect opted instead to nominate Fudge as his secretary of housing and urban development.
"Rep. Marcia Fudge would have been a historic first at USDA—a secretary on the side of everyday people, not corporate agriculture lobbyists," George Goehl, director of progressive advocacy group People's Action, said in a statement late Tuesday. Goehl called Biden's selection of Vilsack "a terrible decision."
"We need a USDA secretary on the side of everyday people who rely on the department in rural, urban, and suburban communities."
—George Goehl, People's Action
Critics of Vilsack, who served as governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007, have pointed to his failure to confront Big Ag during his time as USDA chief in the Obama administration.
Journalist Branko Marcetic wrote for In These Times over the summer that "while his tenure wasn't uniformly bad—Vilsack resisted Republican attacks on food stamps and upped federal support for organic food—he angered progressive groups by letting poultry factories self-regulate, speeding up the approval process for GMO crops, shelving new regulations on big agriculture at the industry's behest, and stepping in to craft an industry-friendly national GMO-labeling bill intended to replace a pioneering stricter standard in Vermont."
"The move," Marcetic noted, "helped earn him the derisive moniker 'Mr. Monsanto' and the enmity of many Bernie Sanders supporters at a time in 2016 when he was shortlisted as one of Hillary Clinton's potential running mates."
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Prominent civil rights organizations have also raised alarm over Vilsack's record on issues of racial justice, pointing specifically to his department's treatment of Black farmers and his 2010 firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod after she was smeared by far-right publication Breitbart.
"It would be a slap in the face to all Black people for this administration to appoint him," Corey Lea of the Cowtown Foundation, an organization that advocates for Black farmers, wrote in a letter urging Biden not to select Vilsack.
The Washington Post reported that during a meeting with Biden on Tuesday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson told the president-elect directly that "he did not want Vilsack to be given the agriculture job."
Goehl of People's Action also highlighted the Sherrod firing and added that during Vilsack's tenure as secretary, USDA "foreclosed on Black farmers after they complained about discrimination."
"We need a USDA secretary on the side of everyday people who rely on the department in rural, urban, and suburban communities," Goehl said. "Instead, we're getting a revolving-door appointment. If this is not the fox guarding the henhouse, it's pretty damn close."