While there is increasing concern about the direction of Joe Biden’s cabinet choices from many Democrats, most activist and media attention has focused on the traditionally high level picks for Secretary of Treasury, Director of the Office of Management and Budget or Department of Defense. President-elect Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture, however, might be the clearest signal yet of the incoming Administration’s governing philosophy.
Agriculture Secretary is a big and important job. The department is in charge of the nation's largest antihunger programs, as well as expanding rural internet access, supporting natural climate solutions and, of course, agricultural commodity subsidies and crop insurance. For the first time in many administrative transitions, there was a real debate over the future of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its leadership.
Early names rumored to be top picks for Secretary of Agriculture included former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge. A wide range of urban and rural organizations working on farm, environmental, hunger, antitrust and labor issues came out loud and proud supporting Fudge. Senator Heitkamp, meanwhile, was unable to muster much public support for her bid.
Once it became clear that Rep Fudge was the most qualified candidate, as well as having a large base of support from rural and urban Democrats, corporate agribusiness and their lobbying groups sprang into action. Folks like Republican Senator Chuck Grassley began tweeting about the job, while the American Farm Bureau sang the praises of their favorite Democrat: Tom Vilsack.
Even with the support of Representative James Clyburn (D-SC), the NAACP and many others in Fudge’s corner, Biden didn’t make history by choosing the first African-American woman Secretary of Agriculture. Instead, he caved to agribusiness pressure leaking the news of Marcia Fudge’s selection for Housing and Urban Development. Tom Vilsack, who served as Secretary of Agriculture from 2009-2016 when Biden was Vice President, was announced to head up USDA once again.
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There are some Democrats claiming that choosing Vilsack was a good-faith effort by Biden to reach out to rural voters, but the truth is Vilsack has very few allies in rural America outside corporations and the biggest commodity farmers. He has a contentious history with ranchers in the West, as the Obama Administration repealed Country of Origin Labeling on beef and pork. Farmers of color, particularly those in the southeast, have constantly expressed frustration at Vilsack as his department was at the center of many discriminations including the firing of Shirly Sherod. And contract livestock growers still have a bad taste in their mouths as Vilsack held hearings asking them to testify publicly about the abuses of the companies that wrote their checks, while Vilsack returned to Washington without offering any help.
Since leaving public office in 2016, Vilsack spent the last four years in a cushy million dollar a year job cozying up to corporate dairy processors at the Dairy Export Council. During Vilsack’s tenure, dairy farmers went broke at an alarming rate.
The point is choosing Vilsack to head USDA was President-Elect Biden buckling to the demands of a very small but incredibly powerful group of special interests that regularly represent Wall Street over the interests of rural working people. He did so at the expense of an opportunity to expand the Democrat base in rural communities and help future Democrats win back voters who feel sold out by the corporate elite who currently control our democracy.
If progressives ever want to gain more votes in rural America, they must rid the Democratic Party of the Corporate Agribusiness stranglehold over everything rural and strike fear into any politician who attempts to pander to those interests.
Maybe Tom Vilsack will surprise us all and change course at USDA. He could fight the very forces that put him there by making USDA the “Peoples Agency” once again but it doesn’t look very likely.