Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Vilsack gets a boost from political pundit Broder, tells him about economic-development approach

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is back home in Iowa today, visiting the state fair as part of the Obama administration's dispatch of cabinet-level officials to fairs across the country. He got a great sendoff Sunday, in a column by political bigfoot David Broder of The Washington Post.

"Over the years, reporters learn that here are a relative handful of the public officials with whom we deal who can be counted on to expand our understanding of events. These are the men and women who have probed deeply into the forces shaping the country -- or their part of it -- and often anticipate the challenges still to come, Broder wrote, saying Vilsack "planted useful thoughts every time I interviewed him. So I was surprised when Vilsack was cast as the fall guy in the ugly incident last month involving the forced resignation of an African American government employee who was accused by a blogger of reverse discrimination against a white farmer."

So Broder chatted with Vilsack to find out what else he had been doing as secretary, and learned that "his chief concern ... is the condition of rural America," which has bad trends that started long before the recession: "an aging, less educated and declining population with an average annual income $11,000 below that of their urban neighbors -- are not because farmers are hurting. Indeed, farm income is up 9 percent over last year, and farm exports are at nearly record levels. But most of those living in rural America are not farmers. And so the formula for boosting those counties includes an emphasis on exploiting their energy resources, creating local food markets for local products, expanding broadband and promoting outdoor recreation."

We've heard and reported all that, but our friend David also told us something about USDA's Rural Development program that we had not heard: "One feature Vilsack brought from Iowa is his plan to set aside a small portion of the economic development funds to be channeled into eight or 10 counties that have done their own bottom-up planning and to come up with a blueprint embracing all elements of the community." Vilsack told Broder, "I know it works." (Read more)

Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson also noted the Broder column in reporting Vilsack's visit, and posted some audio in which Vilsack recalled his first encounter with Broder, at a National Governors Association meeting where Vilsack read a letter from the widow of a hog farmer who had committed suicide. Broder, an Illinois native, wrote about it, and one of his Washington readers sent Vilsack a $10,000 check for the family. Vilsack said, "David Broder and I have always been good friends." (Listen to the audio)

Here is Vilsack's White House Blog post on his visit. Other upcoming state-fair visits announced so far: Small Business Administration Deputy Administrator Marie Johns in Indiana Aug. 18, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Illinois Aug. 20.

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