Sunday, December 13, 2020

Vilsack didn't want to be agriculture secretary, Biden says; quite a few other Democrats didn't want him, either

Vilsack at Biden's announcement of his appointment (Associated Press photo by Susan Walsh)

In announcing that Tom Vilsack would have another go at being secretary of agriculture, President-elect Joe Biden went off script and said, “He wasn’t anxious to come back. He wasn’t looking for this job. Well, I was persistent, and I asked him to serve again in the role because he knows the USDA inside and out.” Only the part of the last sentence after the comma appeared in Biden's prepared remarks, report Alex Thompson and Theodoric Meyer of Politico.

"Vilsack has had a long kinship with Biden," The Associated Press notes. "The two native Pennsylvanians met in Vilsack’s adopted Iowa home in 1986 when Biden had begun making connections ahead of the 1988 Iowa caucuses. Then mayor of Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa, Vilsack volunteered for the up-and-coming Biden before he exited the presidential race. Despite that, in 2007, after his own brief presidential campaign, Vilsack endorsed Hillary Clinton, even with Biden also running. In 2016, Clinton seriously considered him to become her vice presidential running mate but chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine instead."

When Biden's presidential bid was on the edge of doom, Vilsack stuck with him, carrying the main rhetorical load on a bus tour of Iowa, The New York Times recalls. Biden's selection of Vilsack and other longtime associates "are a vivid illustration of how central personal relationships are to Mr. Biden’s view of governing," Sydney Ember and Katie Gleuck write.

Biden picked the former Iowa governor, a white man, over a white woman (former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota) and a black woman, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who wanted to focus USDA on nutrition. Most of its budget is for food programs.

Biden's "admission isn’t likely to soothe those who’d pushed for Fudge to get the job," Politico reports, noting that Fudge will be secretary of housing and urban development, a post often filled by African Americans. "Fudge, herself, had made no secret that she wanted to be agriculture secretary." She would have been the first Black woman in the job.

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd told the AP that “far too little” was done for them during the Obama administration and Vilsack must change a “culture of discrimination” at USDA. AP reports, "Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group focused on climate change that had pushed for Fudge, called his nomination 'a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden'."

In accepting the appointment, Vilsack said he would have a “diverse and inclusive senior leadership team” in the department, and “continue the important work of rooting out inequities and systemic racism in the systems we govern and the programs we lead.”

UPDATE, Dec. 16: Vilsack reached out recently to Shirley Sherrod, an African American he fired from USDA on the basis of a misleading Breitbart report. “I told him, ‘It’s been 10 years ago,’ that ‘I accept your apology’,” she told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. "But Sherrod offered some conditions for her grace, saying she would like to see the department make a concerted effort to help groups such as Black farmers who have been disadvantaged, and at times lost their land, because they’ve been unfairly denied loans," The Washington Post reports.

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