WASHINGTON – One leading candidate for agriculture secretary hails from Cleveland, has the backing of progressives and has worked for years to boost food stamp programs. Another is a former senator from farm-state North Dakota who has championed production agriculture and boasts of a voting record squarely in the middle.
Three other possible selections have similarly varied backgrounds — one helped write and implement federal regulations for organic foods, another is California’s agriculture secretary and represented wine grape growers, and a third has spent his career ensuring protections for farm workers.
President-elect Joe Biden’s choices for secretary of agriculture are as diverse as the department of 100,000 employees that she or he would represent — and is especially critical this year as USDA provides extra aid for the hungry and oversees food production amid the pandemic.
For Biden, the emerging choice between Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and several other potential candidates seems like another test of his vision for the Democratic Party — a contest between urban and rural and liberals and moderates, with the pick potentially placing an added emphasis on anti-hunger programs, farm subsidies or worker protections.
Besides Fudge and Heitkamp, other candidates mentioned for the post — and who have been pushed by some advocacy groups — are Kathleen Merrigan, deputy agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama and one of the architects of federal organic rules; Karen Ross, California’s agriculture secretary, former USDA chief of staff and a former longtime president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers; and Arturo Rodriguez, the former president of the United Farm Workers.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years, is also being considered.
“This isn’t like the secretary of defense where you’re a hawk or a dove,” says Eric Kessler, a Democrat who has long worked around agriculture policy and has been holding private calls with other influencers to speak with some of the possible candidates. “The Department of Agriculture is a massive enterprise that is led by a manager who is dependent on a diverse team of people."
And as Biden has said he wants his Cabinet to reflect the country's diversity, Kessler says the decisions on USDA and other agencies will “be driven by lots of factors, not just the individual's specific resume.”