By Steph Larsen
Editor's note: With readers clamoring in the comments section and a petition started for President-Elect Barack Obama to appoint Michael Pollan as Secretary of Agriculture (read Pollan's response below), I asked a Beltway-savvy acquaintance to summarize just how fertile the landscape for change might be. Steph Larsen is a longtime policy activist who has been pragmatically and pithily debating the realpolitik chances of likely candidates on the Comfood email list-serv. Currently the Rural Policy Organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs in northeast Nebraska, she spent three years in Washington, D.C. working with Community Food Security Coalition. She holds an MS in geography from her home state of Wisconsin.
The excitement of the recent election has worn off. In its place, a new horse race has emerged. The media is now obsessed with who President-Elect Obama will pick to help lead his government of change. We in the sustainable food, rural and agriculture community are particularly susceptible to this when it comes to suggesting nominees for Secretary of Agriculture.
In our enthusiasm, however, there is a tendency of some to lose their heads and forget that, new era or not, this is still politics and the rules still apply. Realism is still a prerequisite.
As soon as Obama won, I witnessed a flurry of emails and blog posts suggesting Michael Pollan, Fred Kirschenmann, Denise O'Brien, Willie Nelson (albeit that was a joke), and a host of other stalwarts of sustainable agriculture.
I would cheer if (most) any of these people were actually being considered, but this is not the reality of the situation. There are times to dream, and dream big, but the bigger you dream, the more you need to strategize and organize, and the further into the future you must plan.
Understanding the process
The process of becoming Secretary of Agriculture begins long before a presidential election. Candidates typically have myriad political connections and make themselves useful in the campaign of the eventual winner. By election time, the list of possibilities is already well-established.
This isn't to say that our collective voices cannot make a difference. They can, and in multiple ways. But at this point it is a matter of focusing our energy and limited resources where they can best be put to use. Instead of fill-in-the-blank politics, where we suggest the names of potential Secretary of Agriculture candidates, we are now in the multiple-choice stage, where we have the opportunity to voice our support — or dislike — for the candidates already put forward. We can also focus energy on getting good people into lower-level positions within USDA, as I'll report in my next post.
And the finalists are...
Given that, here are the choices as I see them, based on various media accounts. It is not my intent to support or criticize any of the potential candidates, but rather to inform and perhaps encourage you to look their records. Use the comments section to add relevant information about their previous actions and positions.
Governor Tom Vilsack: Vilsack was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. He also served in the Iowa State Senate from 1992-1999. Vilsack backed Hillary Clinton in the primary but afterward campaigned for Obama. He has penned several recent op-eds on agricultural issues. Vilsack appears to be the leading candidate right now, but in politics one never knows until the race is called.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN): Peterson is the current chair of the Agriculture Committee, a position that holds significant power in the House of Representatives. Look to the 2008 Farm Bill to discern his priorities and bipartisan compromises, as he ushered the bill through the House legislative process. A spokesperson said he's not interested in the job.
Tom Buis, President of the National Farmers Union: Buis has been with National Farmers Union since 1998. Prior to joining NFU, Buis served more than 10 years in the offices of legislators such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former U.S. Rep. Jim Jontz, and former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh. Before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1987, Buis was a farmer in west central Indiana.
Former Rep. Charles Stenholm: Stenholm was a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 2005, representing his home state of Texas. He operated a cotton farm near Abilene for many years and also worked as a vocational teacher. After leaving Congress, Stenholm became a lobbyist and represented various agricultural interests.
John Boyd: A relatively new name to emerge, Boyd is president of the National Black Farmers Association, a fourth-generation farmer and civil rights leader. Congressional Black Caucus members have reportedly thrown their support behind Boyd.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD): Sandlin is a lawyer and currently the sole member of the House of Representatives from South Dakota. Prior to her election to the House, Herseth Sandlin was Executive Director of the South Dakota Farmer's Union Foundation. She is considered a "dark horse" for the Secretary position, and may run for governor of South Dakota in 2010.
Among the ranks of less likely candidates are Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, Former Iowa Representative and Republican Jim Leach (a bipartisan nod), Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, South Dakota Director for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager, and Indiana's most recent failed gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson. Some of these remain strong contenders for other positions.
Making a stronger impact
Another way to influence this process is by weighing in with your senators regarding other appointed positions at USDA, such as Under Secretaries, Deputy Under Secretaries, and Agency Administrators. These positions often control the daily workings of programs we care about, and having people friendly to the sustainable food, rural and agriculture community in these positions goes a long way to help make these programs successful.
In my next post, I will describe some of these positions so you can have a better idea of who might fit well into them. We can dream a little bigger with positions lower down the chain of command, and our suggestions have a much higher chance of being taken seriously.
One last note: Before one becomes Secretary of Agriculture, he or she must actually desire to take on the job managing a sprawling, $94 billion a year bureaucracy. I was curious about whether Michael Pollan was actually up for the job, so Bonnie asked him whether, as we suspected, he was not at all interested. He replied, "Confirmed. But maybe the floating of my name will push the center a bit."