On Tuesday evening, Hans Nichols of Axios reported that President-elect Joe Biden plans to select a familiar face as his secretary for the Department of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack was previously picked by President Barack Obama to serve as head of the USDA, and served eight years under that administration; Biden, of course, was Vice-President during that time. The possibility of Vilsack’s appointment has earned the disapproval of various progressive groups, but political insiders believe it will be seen as a safe choice.
Prior to serving in Obama’s cabinet, Vilsack was the governor of Iowa; he was confirmed for the USDA chief role unanimously. After Obama’s second term, he ran the US Dairy Export Council, which represents the American dairy industry.
Vilsack’s record as USDA secretary provides an unusually clear glimpse at his priorities for, well, USDA secretary; under his rule, the department was generally helpful to large agribusiness over small, but with touches of left-leaning rules, like grants for new farmers. He was a vocal supporter of expanding crop insurance, a policy choice that favors large landowners and dramatically raises costs for renters and small growers. His time at the USDA was also marked by rampant mergers of agribusiness firms, concentrating power over agriculture in the hands of a few gigantic corporations.
Vilsack’s tenure was perhaps best known outside the agricultural world for a monumental screwup in the Shirley Sherrod scandal. Sherrod, who served as a state director for rural development in Georgia under Vilsack, gave a speech at an NAACP event in 2010. Later that year, right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a selectively chosen clip of her speech, accusing her of discrimination against a white farmer (Sherrod is Black). In response to a media uproar (largely, but not entirely, in right-wing media), Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign. Soon after her resignation, video of her entire speech was released, placing her comments in context; Vilsack and Obama apologized, and offered Sherrod a role back at the USDA, which she declined.
Progressive groups immediately criticized the reported choice of Vilsack Tuesday evening. The NAACP noted that Vilsack had lied to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers, as an investigation from The Counter showed. The Center for Food Safety called the choice of Vilsack “a huge step backwards in our urgent need to support agricultural systems that protect public health, the environment, and mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.” Food & Water Watch said, “Vilsack 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.”
Those groups (and dozens of other farmer’s groups) had previously supported Marcia Fudge, Congresswoman from Cleveland, for the role. Fudge, according to reports, has been chosen to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.