Ag sec revisited

by Steph Larsen

In the five weeks since the election and almost a month since my first post about the Secretary of Agriculture, a lot has changed. But one thing has become increasingly clear: the people that voted for Barack Obama expect change at the head of USDA.

The next person to head the Department of Agriculture needs to be someone willing to step outside the status quo.

The idea is gaining traction, with nods from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Chuck Hassebrook in the Des Moines Register, and over 28,000 grassroots individuals at fooddemocracynow.org. And the call for change is growing.

The “short list” of candidates is changing as well, perhaps in response to the many voices echoing a desire for reform in food and agriculture. Keep up the pressure, folks.

Here is an update of where things stand based on a variety of media reports. Keep in mind that all of this is speculative at best.

New Candidates

Several new candidates emerged since my last post. Most frequently mentioned are Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Colorado Congressman John Salazar and Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. Another is Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff.

But candidates drop off as fast as they come on. Sebelius withdrew herself from consideration (Kansas City Star); Salazar grabbed an appointment on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, fueling speculation that he will not be Obama’s choice (Denver Post); and as of December 9, Bishop said the transition team had not contacted him, suggesting that he may not be in the running either (AP via Miami Herald).

Kristof’s New York Times piece also suggests my boss and Center for Rural Affairs Executive Director Chuck Hassebrook. Perhaps a dark horse candidate, but one with a clear record of advocating for the change Obama promises to bring to rural America.

Updates on Other Candidates

Of the candidates initially considered to be at the top of the list, several have dropped off. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has not been contacted by the transition team and assumed that he was not being considered (Des Moines Register). House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said that he does not want the job (Bemidji Pioneer). Former Texas Congressman Charles Stenholm said publicly that he does not expect to be picked (Austin American-Statesman).

Though it doesn’t mean they are out of the running, there has been very little media attention outside of the blogosphere about National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, and National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd.

Keep the pressure on

All the rumors and speculation aside, the fact that the announcement hasn't been made means that there is still time for our voices to be heard. If you haven't done so yet, consider the positions mentioned in my last post, ask people you think would qualify to submit applications and send your suggestions to your Democratic Senators and to change.gov.

Showing the widespread support for changes in the food system now can only help to get better candidates for all USDA appointments.

Steph Larsen is currently the Rural Policy Organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs in northeast Nebraska, before which 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.

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