Tom Vilsack faces new challenges as he returns to old job
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has spent years, if not decades, telling his fellow Democrats they needed to do more to aid rural communities and reach out to them. But he has often lamented that no one listened.
Now, he’s going to try again.
President-elect Joe Biden nominated Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and Democratic presidential candidate, to return to his old job at the Agriculture Department, saying his eight years of experience there under former President Barack Obama would ensure quicker help to rural and poor areas that are “reeling” from the pandemic and economic downturn.
“He wasn’t anxious to come back, he wasn’t looking for this job, but I was persistent and I asked him to serve again in this role because he knows the USDA inside and out, he knows the government inside and out,” Biden said of Vilsack, who turns 70 this weekend, as he introduced him and other members of his future Cabinet on Friday. “We need that experience now.”
Reaction to his appointment was mixed.
Farm and anti-hunger groups that had a good relationship with Vilsack appeared pleased. Vilsack “has the necessary qualifications and experience to steer the agency through these turbulent times,” said Rob Larew, the president of the National Farmers Union.
But progressive groups that had pushed Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge expressed frustration.
Fudge has fiercely pushed to expand food aid in her long tenure on the House Agriculture Committee and would have been the first Black woman to lead the agency, which has a troubled history of discriminating against Black farmers.
Accepting the nomination alongside Biden on Friday, Vilsack said he would ensure a “diverse and inclusive senior leadership team” in the department, and “continue the important work of rooting out inequities and systemic racism in the systems we govern and the programs we lead.”
He said one of his first duties would be to “build back a vibrant and resilient economy” as the department aids in the coronavirus response, including addressing food needs and shortages and getting relief to food workers and producers.
He also will become the Biden administration’s chief spokesman for rural America. As he left office in 2016, fresh off Democrat Hillary Clinton’s defeat and a Democratic beating in rural states, Vilsack warned that the party wasn’t relatable enough in many areas of the country.
“The Democratic Party, in my opinion, has not made as much of an effort as it ought to to speak to rural voters,” Vilsack told The Associated Press during his final days in office. “What’s frustrating to me is that we actually have something we can say to them, and we have chosen, for whatever reason, not to say it.”
It’s unclear how Biden came to the unusual decision to bring back the former secretary, who has spent the past four years in the private sector working for the international trade group U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Progressive groups were pushing for Fudge, but Biden nominated her to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development instead. Many agricultural groups were privately hoping that he would pick former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who had been a strong supporter of farm subsidies for her rural state.
Former aides to Vilsack, the longest-serving holdover from the Obama administration, said he felt the need to return to duty, in part out of loyalty to Biden, but also to reverse some of the moves made by President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue.
Democrats have expressed concerns that the Trump administration has diminished rural development programs that were a priority for Vilsack and largely ignored measures to address climate change.
And many farmers have faced heavy economic losses due to Trump’s trade policies, though they still backed Trump in the election by large margins.
Vilsack has had a long kinship with Biden. The two native Pennsylvanians met in Vilsack’s adopted Iowa home in 1986 when Biden had begun making connections ahead of the 1988 Iowa caucuses. Then mayor of Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa, Vilsack volunteered for the up-and-coming Biden before he exited the presidential race.
Despite that, in 2007, after his own brief presidential campaign, Vilsack endorsed Hillary Clinton, even with Biden also running. In 2016, Clinton seriously considered him to become her vice presidential running mate but chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine instead.
In 2017, Vilsack’s six-year-old granddaughter, Ella, died from complications of influenza. At an Iowa fundraiser two years later, Biden approached Vilsack’s son Jess to ask how he was doing, in light of the personal loss. “You and I are part of a fraternity that you and I didn’t choose to be part of,” Vilsack, in publicly endorsing Biden four months later, recalled Biden telling his son.
In his endorsement, Vilsack called Biden “a man with empathy, and a man who has the heart of a president. He said Biden was someone with “the need to heal a divided nation.”
Vilsack will have to do some healing among USDA’s many constituencies, as well, as some groups were hoping to see more diversity at the top. All but two agriculture secretaries in the last 120 years have been white men.
While the Obama administration, under Vilsack, paid out more than a billion dollars in a settlement with Black farmers who had been denied loans for generations, some groups say there are still challenges to be addressed.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said “far too little” was done during Vilsack’s first tenure and he must commit to change a “culture of discrimination” at the agency. Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group focused on climate change that had pushed for Fudge, called his nomination “a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden.”
On Friday, Vilsack pledged to “position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change” and to expand opportunities for “all Americans.”