Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will reprise his role as U.S. agriculture secretary as a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet, several news organizations including Axios and the Associated Press reported Tuesday night, citing unnamed sources.
Vilsack, about to turn 70. was elected to two terms as Iowa governor between 1999 and 2007 and later spent eight years as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration.
For days, Vilsack was said to be in the running for the position along with Ohio U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge and former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, among others.
But Biden will name Fudge instead to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development, also a Cabinet-level position.
Vilsack’s planned nomination followed efforts by some Black allies of Biden to derail him in favor of Fudge, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, who they saw as someone who could transform the agency into one with more focus on farmworkers, food production and alleviating hunger.
“Biden’s choice of Vilsack indicates he wants the USDA to stay more focused on its traditional roles of supporting farmers ensuring food safety,” the Axios news organization reported.
Biden sees Fudge as a leading voice for working families and a longtime champion of affordable housing, infrastructure and other priorities, one of the people familiar with the president-elect’s decision told the Washington Post. Vilsack was selected for the USDA in part because of the heightened hunger crisis facing the nation and the need to ensure someone was ready to run the department on day one, the person said.
Vilsack currently is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
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The sprawling USDA not only supports farmers — its most well-known role — but also is involved in the school lunch program, food stamps and even higher education. USDA Rural Development has provided tens of millions in loans to Iowa colleges and universities including Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Central College in Pella and several others.
Fudge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was just elected to a seventh term in the House representing a majority Black district that includes parts of Cleveland and Akron.
Her move to Biden’s Cabinet means the Democrats’ thin margin of control of the U.S. House will grow even thinner.
As news outlets started reporting her selection as HUD secretary, Fudge said on Capitol Hill that it would be “an honor and a privilege” to be asked to join Biden’s Cabinet, though she didn’t confirm she had been picked.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat who gave Biden a key nod of support in the primaries, had strongly backed Fudge for the job, saying, “It’s one thing to grow food, but another to dispense it, and nobody would be better at that than Marcia Fudge.”
She also had the strong backing of progressive groups who touted her support for food aid and worker protections at meatpacking plants, like those in Iowa that this summer were frequent sites of COVID-19 outbreaks.
But her name was later floated for HUD as Biden’s team focused on other candidates for USDA, including Vilsack and Heitkamp.
Biden’s relationship with Vilsack goes back decades. He was an early supporter of Biden’s first campaign for president in 1988 while Vilsack was the mayor of Mount Pleasant. He endorsed Biden a year before the 2020 election and campaigned for him in Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state. However, Biden fared poorly in Iowa’s problem-plagued Democratic 2020 caucuses, well behind apparent winner Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor from Indiana.
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Nonetheless, Biden has adopted aspects of Vilsack’s rural policy agenda as Democrats look to make up ground they’ve lost to Republicans in rural areas.
Vilsack has repeatedly told Democrats they must listen to rural voters if the party ever hopes to win their support. Rural voters in Iowa strongly supported President Donald Trump in November’s election.
“When you meet with rural Iowans, you find people working hard to make the world a better place,” Vilsack wrote in opinion column published March 10, 2019, in The Gazette. “What starts in the field results in cleaner air for all of us and good jobs in communities that need them.”
Having run the giant USDA for eight years under Obama and sat at the table with Biden, there’s little mystery to Vilsack’s expertise.
Vilsack entered politics in large part because of tragedy, when the mayor of Mount Pleasant was gunned down at a city council meeting in 1986. Vilsack, then a young lawyer, had grown up in Pittsburgh and moved with his wife, Christie, to her hometown. He was recruited to seek the mayor’s office, then served two terms in the Iowa Senate before being the first Democrat in 30 years to win the governorship.
After two terms, Vilsack ran a 10-week campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president before withdrawing and throwing his support to Hillary Clinton, even as Biden was among the field.
Biden has said he wants a diverse Cabinet, and some Black leaders have said he needs to do more to achieve that.
Biden announced earlier Tuesday that he had selected retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to be the nation’s first Black defense secretary.
The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed.