President-elect Joe Biden elicited criticism on Thursday for officially announcing that he will nominate former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as his agriculture secretary and Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge—who had been favored for that position by dozens of progressive organizations—as his housing secretary.
"Fudge's nomination for a completely different agency she has much less experience with than USDA also indicates that Biden and the transition see HUD... as a consolation prize."
—Paul Blest, Discourse Blog
Fudge, a high-ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, had publicly campaigned for the role of leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farm, environment, food safety, and animal welfare groups rallied behind her as a longtime ally to farmers, food-chain workers, consumers, and rural communities.
Biden chose Vilsack, who led USDA for the Obama administration and is known to critics as "Mr. Monsanto," despite concerns he "has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants—some of whom he has gone to work for—while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn," in the words of Food & Water Watch's Mitch Jones.
Noting that the Sunrise Movement had backed Fudge for USDA because of her food and agriculture experience, executive director Varshini Prakash said Thursday that "we were thrilled to learn how seriously she was being considered by the Joe Biden transition for the role and to see the amount of public support that rallied behind her, so to hear that Rep. Marcia Fudge is being sidestepped to head the USDA by Tom Vilsack is frustrating."
Biden has instead tapped Fudge to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is "unclear" why she is being put in that post, "seeing as her experience is in agriculture, which is why she publicly lobbied for that Cabinet position," Prakash said. "While we believe Rep. Fudge can excel at any leadership position, we share the confusion of many about this move and are left to believe this choice stems from shallow racial stereotypes about the office."
Fudge would have been the first Black woman to serve as agriculture secretary; if confirmed, she will be the second Black woman to serve as housing secretary.
The President-elect has asked me to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to make sure people in every part of this country get a chance to build a better life for their families.
It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of that important work.
— Marcia L. Fudge (@mlfudge) December 10, 2020
Vanessa A. Bee similarly argued at The Intercept on Wednesday that "the progress feels shallow. Black and brown faces are being crudely shifted across a limited number of Cabinet spots to fulfill the primary goal: the ability to boast, as President-elect Joe Biden has begun to, 'the most diverse Cabinet anyone in American history has ever announced.'"
Given that the coronavirus pandemic and related economic fallout have made it even harder for people across the country to pay for their homes, Bee wrote that "the guarantee of safe and affordable housing is too important for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue being treated as the short straw by incoming White House administrations."
While being careful to note that Fudge may be capable of "grasping the breadth of HUD's mission, surrounding herself with knowledgeable advisers, and getting down to work quickly," Bee warned that her lack of relevant experience "does suggest that she will initially do so without familiarity with the field's long-standing debates, the stakeholders in any given rule-making, or the experts across the political spectrum, including those who operate off the Democratic Party's Rolodex."
Fudge herself has previously criticized appointments to the department, telling Politico last month: "As this country becomes more and more diverse, we're going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it's always, 'We want to put the Black person in labor or HUD.'"
However, in an interview with The 19th published Thursday, Fudge made clear her commitment to the position. "I'm very passionate about the fact that every single person in this country should have a decent place to lay their heads," she said. "I'm very passionate about the fact that we need to find ways to start to eradicate homelessness."
"When I think about urban development, I think about how we put the people in these communities to work, because that's what lifts them from poverty," the congresswoman added. "I also think about making sure that we empower neighborhood health programs and local credit unions and all of the things that make communities thrive. It's also an attitude, it is bringing hope to people, it is giving them a way out. That's what's exciting to me."
Still, Fudge sought appointment to USDA versus HUD because of her specific experience, as Paul Blest wrote at Discourse Blog on Wednesday:
You can't blame Fudge for taking the HUD job, as there's a good chance she would have either gotten double-bunked or put in a much more competitive district because of redistricting. But Fudge will undoubtedly get asked about this during her confirmation hearing, and Fudge's nomination for a completely different agency she has much less experience with than USDA also indicates that Biden and the transition see HUD—a department overseeing federal housing policy with a budget of nearly $60 billion—as a consolation prize.
It makes zero sense, even if your actual goal is building out the most diverse cabinet in history. Making a Black woman from a large city who focuses on food insecurity the head of the USDA, rather than another white former governor from a rural state—seriously, Vilsack 2.0 would make it five straight USDA heads who were white male former governors—would show an actual, legitimate commitment not just to diversity in leadership but in using federal policy to help the most vulnerable. No, what Biden is doing can more accurately be called diversity theater.
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Writing Wednesday for The American Prospect, David Dayen noted that this appears to not be "the only instance of a paint-by-numbers approach to Cabinet diversity."
I wrote about the haphazard nature of the Biden cabinet process, dominated by favor-trading and snap decisions, where qualified people get passed over and then offered consolation prizes. It's a red flag for Biden's likely governing style.https://t.co/HWsdPs32I5
— David Dayen (@ddayen) December 9, 2020
In addition to accusations of tokenism, Biden's selection of Fudge for HUD and Vilsack for USDA provoked a flood of fresh critiques of his record, with Prakash pointing out that his time as secretary under former President Barack Obama "was particularly disgraceful for Black farmers."
Appointing Vilsack to USDA "would be a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden," the Sunrise leader said. "Vilsack failed Black farmers before—it's not necessary to give him another shot when other candidates are well qualified for the role."
We're glad to see @RepMarciaFudge in the cabinet, but she lobbied to be the Ag. secretary
— Sunrise Movement (@sunrisemvmt) December 10, 2020
Despite claims by Vilsack and others that during the Obama administration he ushered in a "new era for civil rights" at the USDA, which Black farmers have long called "the last plantation," an investigation published last year by The Counter revealed "a disturbing pattern: Though USDA came to enjoy a reputation among policymakers and the press as a steady force for good in the lives of historically marginalized farmers, Vilsack and others in the department made cosmetic changes, and little else."
Both Derrick Johnston, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Biden ally Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) criticized Vilsack. "I don't know why we've got to be recycling," Clyburn told the New York Times last month of his potential appointment, pointing out that "there's a strong feeling that Black farmers didn't get a fair shake" when he was in the post.
People's Action senior strategist Shawn Sebastian said Thursday that "it is a huge mistake by President-elect Biden's transition team to completely dismiss the swift, strong, and clear reaction against Tom Vilsack from the Black voters who delivered Biden his victory and the rural voters he most needs to win over."
"Because of his previous record as USDA secretary and his ongoing work, Vilsack was utterly rejected as unacceptable by organizations and elected officials representing Black people, multiple Black farmers groups, the NAACP, USDA employees, and even Majority Whip Rep. Clyburn, who turned the tide in the Democratic primary for Biden," Sebastian noted.
Black farmers, Black USDA staff, Black civil society, and the Congressional Black Caucus AND farm, rural, and environmental groups have made it clear that Vilsack is the wrong choice for USDA.
Why is @Transition46 ignoring this OVERWHELMING message?
— Shawn Sebastian (@shawnsebastian) December 10, 2020
"Vilsack has also been explicitly and repeatedly rejected by rural community-based organizations, family farm advocates, workers, and environmentalists," Sebastian continued. "Vilsack's record and vision for rural America has been soundly rejected by rural voters at the ballot box over and over again, each time worse than the last. We need the Biden administration to govern at the scale of the multiple crises we face and his transition team has made a completely avoidable, self-inflicted injury by appointing Tom Vilsack to USDA."
Prakash highlighted that "the day after Vilsack left his role leading the USDA, he ran through the revolving door to rake in $1 million a year as an executive for Dairy Management Inc. at the same year that 1,600 dairy farms closed nationwide. He has failed to fight for small, family-run dairy farmers who struggle with low milk prices and are committing suicide at a record rate."
"We need a USDA secretary who will do everything in their power to tackle climate change, fight for family farms, and empower a new and diverse generation of farmers," she said, "not a corporate executive."