Inside D.C.

An embarrassment of secretarial talent

We’re about two weeks from the inauguration.  We still have no inkling who may get the nomination to be President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of agriculture.  Articles are beginning to appear in trade and general media in the heartland bemoaning the fact rural America elected Trump and is now being ignored.

This makes little or no sense. I prefer to see this particular glass as half full.

I’d argue the Trump machine is hamstrung by an embarrassment of very talented, very politically connected and eager-to-serve ag secretary wannabes.  After a meeting this week between Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R, KS) all either gentleman would say is the selection process is “fluid.”

For the last couple of weeks, it’s appeared former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has had a near-lock on the nomination.  Even as the transition gang in New York City has vetted Hispanics, women, geographically significant candidates and real lives farmers – albeit very wealthy farmers – the focus continues to swing back to Perdue.

Perdue is a 70-year-old veterinarian by education, but grain trader and transportation executive by vocation, and it’s known he wants the secretary job.  No one on the Trump team has unofficially or publicly blessed the Perdue selection, though the two-term governor was an early Trump supporter, sits on his agriculture advisory committee and did yeoman’s work on behalf of the Trump-Pence ticket across the South during both primaries and the general election campaign.  Georgia aggies are quick to point out Perdue “understands agriculture and its importance,” and when governor, “always had an open door policy toward farmers.”

However, this week the Perdue front-runner status was challenged by Kip Tom, also a Trump ag advisory committee member, an Indiana corn and soybean farmer and agribusinessman, Tom was spotted at Trump Tower in New York.  Tom, who’s told Indiana media his name is in the mix for agriculture secretary and has acted as good counsel to the transition on other names that have been floated for administration gigs, wouldn’t confirm to New York media why he was there.   Some speculate Tom, who’s a good friend of former Indiana governor, now Vice President-elect Mike Pence, may be talking about an inside-the-White House job advising Trump on food, agriculture and trade.  Such a position was established by President Reagan and both Bushes.

Also eager to serve is Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho.  The former president of Simplot International, Otter served in the Idaho state house.

Prior to Tom showing up in New York, the list of front-runners included three GOP women.  Last week the top of the leader board was Dr. Elsa Murano, a distinguished professor of food safety at Texas A & M University, who once served as vice chancellor and president of that institution, a tenure marked by a fractious relationship with Gov. Rick Perry, now Trump’s pick for energy secretary.

Murano, a Cuban-born citizen, spent several hours with the Trump team in Florida, by far the most time the team has spent vetting an agriculture secretary candidate.  Murano was from 2001-2005, the first USDA undersecretary for food safety in the President George W. Bush administration.  However, Murano does not enjoy deep support within the agriculture advisory committee.

Also on the list is another Texan, Susan Combs, a former ag commissioner who successfully won two terms as the state’s comptroller.  She’s supported by House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R, TX).  Former Iowa state Sen. Annette Sweeney is also talked about.  Sweeney was the first woman to chair the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee from 2011-2012, and is the politically astute head of the Iowa Angus Assn.

Most of these folks are eminently qualified to sit in the big corner office at USDA.  It appears we’re awaiting that ultimate calculation — what’s the biggest political bang for the buck?

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