Guest Columnist

Vilsack is a longtime ally to people of color

Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids
Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Football brought me from the streets of Washington, D.C. to Minnesota and Iowa in the late 1960s. I often say it saved my life to get away from a life of petty crimes and into a position where I could begin learning how I could make a difference in the world. I worked hard to graduate from Rochester Junior College in 1971 and from Drake University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education.

Shortly after graduating, I organized my first presidential forum in 1976, and Mary Campos and I formed the Black and Brown Presidential Forum in 1984 to highlight issues of race and the challenges black and brown people face with the economy, educational opportunities, criminal justice and access to health care. The Black and Brown Forum is the oldest minority presidential forum in the country, and we were excited to host president-elect Joe Biden, vice president-elect Kamala Harris as well as a host of other candidates in 2020.

I also started a nonprofit called Urban Dreams in 1985 and ran for the Iowa Legislature in 1996. I served in the Iowa House until 2010. I was the 10th black legislator to serve in Iowa.

While serving in the Legislature, I met a small-town lawyer who served in the Iowa Senate named Tom Vilsack. From the outside, most people would think we had little in common. But, we both were serving in the Iowa Legislature, we were both Iowans by choice rather than by birth, and we both loved playing football. And, because Tom Vilsack grew up in the city of Pittsburgh, we both had a different perspective on race than most of our colleagues in the Iowa Legislature.

Our shared experiences and shared values started a lasting friendship that continues today. In 1998, I was an early supporter of his campaign for governor of Iowa and helped with his campaign.

Tom Vilsack won in a huge upset in 1998. As governor, we maintained a close relationship. We spoke at length about the problems of significantly higher incarceration rates for people of color than whites in the Iowa penal system. In 1999, he asked me to colead the Governor’s Task Force on Overrepresentation of Blacks in Prison.

That task force found that 24 percent of the state’s prison population in 1999 was African American although blacks comprised just over 2 percent of Iowa’s population. The numbers were stunning. One of the recommendations from the task force was that the state should modify sentencing policies as they pertain to drug offenses and mandatory sentencing. That recommendation resonated with me and was one of the tenets for the Iowa minority impact legislation I authored in 2008. Iowa was the first state in the nation to pass this historic legislation. Gov. Chet Culver signed that bill.

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When Tom and I served together, I witnessed him pass an executive order restoring a felon’s right to vote. He directed state governmental agencies to aggressively participate in Iowa’s Targeted Small Business Program and set an expectation for department leaders to achieve their goals for procurement activities and compliance. This expectation still exists today. He initiated a task force, including myself, to establish the Iowa Principles and Practices for Charitable Nonprofit Excellence that continues to serve as a blueprint for the successful governance of nonprofits today. We worked together to pass legislation that required children to be tested for exposure to lead paint before enrollment in school.

An example of his successes as U.S. agriculture secretary that pertains to urban communities is Vilsack’s USDA Urban Agriculture Toolkit that he assembled to provide a comprehensive resource for producers to effectively manage their businesses. This was an innovative approach to providing assistance and growth in urban communities.

When Tom Vilsack was elected governor, I was the only black legislator. We worked closely for eight years and collaborated on numerous legislative initiatives to positively impact the lives of minorities and low-income communities. These policies continue to enhance the lives of marginalized individuals today. Based on my close working relationship with Vilsack, and my friendship with him, I know that he will once again be an excellent secretary of agriculture.

Wayne Ford is a former state legislator and the principal of Wayne Ford and Associates in Des Moines.

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