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Biden Picks Tom Vilsack to Reprise Role as Agriculture Secretary

(Bloomberg) — President-elect turned to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to reprise his Obama administration role as U.S. agriculture secretary, according to two people familiar with the decision, tapping a Farm Belt politician with deep ties to rural America.Vilsack has been a proponent of international trade who criticized President ’s tariff war with China and has shown a willingness to build consensus with agricultural interests. He is well-known both to Biden and farm groups. As agriculture secretary for eight years, he was Barack Obama’s longest-serving cabinet member.Biden chose Vilsack as he tries to build support among constituencies that favored Trump, especially in rural America.Biden made his choice in part because he knows that Vilsack will be able to hit the ground running at the Department of Agriculture and because he has spent the past four years closely watching how the Trump administration has undone his work, a person familiar with the president-elect’s thinking said.Biden settled on Vilsack after also considering Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department. Her case had been pressed by a key Biden ally, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement helped Biden win the state’s early primary and secure the Democratic nomination.Fudge will be nominated instead to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, two people familiar with the transition said.Vilsack’s ties to the farming industry deepened after his time in the Obama administration. He has since been president and chief executive officer of the Dairy Export Council, which promotes sales of American dairy products abroad.Roland Fumasi, head of Rabobank’s food and agribusiness research team in North America, said the farm sector has been roiled by trade wars and the coronavirus pandemic and that Vilsack “will add some level of certainty or stability in what otherwise has been an uncertain time and still is.”He has long been a figure in Democratic national politics. He was considered as a potential vice-presidential nominee by John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has advocated within the party to reach out to rural communities.His relationship with Biden goes back decades. The president-elect has fondly recalled getting the support of Vilsack, then the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, during his short-lived first White House bid in 1987. Vilsack endorsed Biden last November, as his campaign was struggling in Iowa, and traversed the state until caucus day working to build support for him.Vilsack will lead a department crucial to Biden’s climate change agenda. The president-elect set a goal during the campaign to bring U.S. agriculture’s net greenhouse gas emissions down to zero. Biden stressed voluntary payments to create incentives for farmers, though some environmental activists want more aggressive action. In an interview after the election, Vilsack suggested the new administration would seek common ground between agricultural groups and the environmental movement.“Given the vice president’s call for unity and the need for the country to unify to get us to a better place, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an effort to convene and bring people together people from the farm groups and the environmental groups,” Vilsack said in a November interview with Bloomberg News. “I think there is an openness on the part of farm groups to at least have that conversation.”Promoted Trans Pacific PartnershipUnder Obama, Vilsack publicly promoted the Trans Pacific Partnership along with other cabinet officials and he supported Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement at the Dairy Export Council.He criticized Trump’s China trade policies as harmful to farmers. He told audiences during the presidential campaign that a Biden administration would maintain pressure on China for better trade terms but work with U.S. allies in Asia and Europe, arguing that would leave farmers less vulnerable to retaliation.Civil rights groups have criticized Vilsack for his role in the 2010 ouster of USDA official Shirley Sherrod in response to an edited video published by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.The clip showed Sherrod, who is Black, telling a local group she was initially reluctant to help a White farmer save his farm more than two decades ago, before she worked at USDA. The clip left out of the speech, intended to show racial healing, that Sherrod went on to help the man save his farm. Vilsack later offered to rehire her, but she declined.The environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s selection of “ an agribusiness lobbyist with a tarnished record on civil rights, consolidation, and the environment.”Vilsack, who turns 70 on Dec. 13, was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh days after his birth and later adopted by a local couple. He moved to Mount Pleasant to practice law with the father of his wife, Christie, whom he met while at Hamilton College in upstate New York.He began his career in public life in 1978, working to raise money for a local sports complex. He was appointed mayor of Mount Pleasant, his first public office, after a disgruntled resident fatally shot his predecessor at a city council meeting in December 1986.Vilsack did not respond to email and telephone messages.(Updates with Friends of the Earth statement, in 17th paragraph.)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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