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Biden eyes Rep. Marcia Fudge as agriculture secretary

By on March 23, 2021 0

WASHINGTON — One of the leading contenders for agriculture secretary hails from Cleveland, has the support of progressives, and has worked for years to boost food stamp programs.

Rep. Marcia Fudge is among a diverse list of people President-elect Joe Biden plans to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 10,000-staff department that itself has a diverse portfolio, a portfolio that is particularly critical this year as USDA provides additional resources. helps the hungry and oversees food production during the pandemic.

After: Joyce Beatty, Democratic congresswoman from Columbus, chosen to lead the Congressional Black Caucus

For Biden, the emerging choice between Fudge, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and several other potential candidates appears to be another test of his vision for the Democratic Party — a contest between urban and rural and liberal and moderate, with the choice placing potentially an additional focus on anti-hunger programs, agricultural subsidies or worker protections.

Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, ​​DN.D.

Besides Fudge and Heitkamp, ​​the other candidates mentioned for the job — and who have been pushed by some advocacy groups — are Kathleen Merrigan, assistant secretary of agriculture under President Barack Obama and one of the architects of Organic Rules. federal; Karen Ross, California Secretary of Agriculture, former USDA chief of staff and 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 under consideration.

“It’s not like Secretary of Defense where you’re a hawk or a dove,” says Eric Kessler, a Democrat who has long worked around farm policy and held private calls with other influencers to talk with some of the possible candidates. “The Department of Agriculture is a massive one-manager business that depends on a diverse team.”

And as Biden has said he wants his cabinet to reflect the country’s diversity, Kessler said decisions about the USDA and other agencies “would be driven by many factors, not just the individual’s specific resume. ‘individual”.

The agricultural post has come under close scrutiny because all but two of the agricultural secretaries over the past 120 years have been white men. If chosen, Fudge would be the first black woman to lead a department that has a long history of discrimination against blacks and women.

Under Obama, the department paid out more than $1 billion in a settlement with black farmers and a lesser amount to female farmers, as well as Hispanics and Native Americans who had been repeatedly denied jobs. agricultural loans for many decades.

Fudge has strong support from South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat who gave Biden a nod of support in the primaries. Biden has said he wants a diverse cabinet, and some black leaders have said he needs to do more to achieve that.

Clyburn aggressively pushed Fudge for the job, saying Biden should pick someone who “understands the other side of agriculture… It’s one thing to grow food, but another to distribute it, and nobody would be better than Marcia Fudge.”

As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge has advocated fiercely for food stamps and other federal programs that help urban areas stave off hunger and grow food. Beyond Clyburn, she has the support of progressive groups who hope she can divert attention from the department. In a joint letter to Biden, several of those groups said Fudge “has long been an ally of farmers, food chain workers, consumers and rural communities.” Some unions have also backed her as she lobbies for worker protections in meatpacking plants. during the pandemic.

Heitkamp is a favorite of farm groups who have worked closely with her and of Democrats who want to improve their reach in rural areas. But she has also been a strong supporter of food assistance programs, having represented swathes of rural poverty until her re-election defeat in 2018. And her family intermittently relied on food stamps as she grew up like the one of seven children in a town of 90 people. in the state.

Agriculture programs — billions of dollars in subsidies for staple crops and grants for rural infrastructure, among other benefits — and food aid to the poor have long been merged in Washington. Legislators from both parties who back one piece have traditionally backed the other, creating a pact that has held firm amid growing partisanship.

Although they have different backgrounds, Fudge and Heitkamp helped craft and pass several multi-billion dollar farm bills that supported both sectors.

“Agriculture is a place where, in a post-Trump world, the secretary will play a very important role in bringing together different perspectives and parties,” said Matt Paul, a longtime Vilsack aide who worked with him at the office. USDA. “There’s really no You have to do both.

While Vilsack, Merrigan and Ross all have significant leadership experience at USDA, Rodriguez would be an unusual choice as his experience is primarily focused on the labor sector. But he has the backing of Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who wrote in an op-ed this week that appointing him as the first Latino agriculture secretary would “finally give Latinos real power in the agriculture industry.” . , the industry our work has sustained for so long.

Heitkamp would have one big advantage over all other candidates: an easy path to confirmation in the Republican-led Senate, where she was highly regarded and often worked across the aisle.

She already has the backing of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a fellow moderate Democrat who joined her in supporting some of Trump’s nominees four years ago. “You won’t find a better person than Heidi Heitkamp,” Manchin said in a statement, adding that she would make a “great” agriculture secretary.

And at least two Republican senators have also praised her — Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who tweeted this week about her ability to “get things done,” and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts. , who is retiring at the end of the year.

Roberts said last month that Biden “couldn’t have made a better choice” than Heitkamp.

“She’s easy to work with,” he said. “I don’t think she’s that partisan, but she knows farming.”