Biden chose Vilsack because he wanted someone at USDA with deep knowledge of the department’s operations and who can immediately address the problems facing rural communities, farmers and low-income families in need of food assistance during the pandemic, according to a person familiar with Biden’s thinking. The person also pointed to Vilsack’s work at USDA establishing the department’s first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee and creating the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
“No one knows the department better than Tom Vilsack,” the person said.
While the criticism of Vilsack on racial equity is well-organized and the disappointment runs deep on the left, the opposition is not expected to threaten his path to confirmation. The former two-time Iowa governor who served as Agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration sailed through the confirmation process in 2009 with unanimous approval in the Senate.
Part of the letdown stems from the excitement that had been building for weeks as a large and diverse coalition had publicly urged Biden to pick Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat and longtime House Agriculture Committee leader who would have been the first Black woman to lead the department.
Dozens of groups signed a letter supporting Fudge, citing her policy experience and previous commitment to Black farmers. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus who endorsed Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary, also repeatedly urged Biden to pick Fudge for the role.
Instead, Biden’s team opted to place Fudge at the top of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a position that Fudge herself had earlier noted is typically one of the few departments people of color are selected to oversee. While Fudge’s supporters said they’re confident she’ll do a fantastic job leading HUD, they expressed bewilderment at the decision, given Fudge’s extensive anti-hunger and ag policy work in Congress made her particularly well-suited to lead USDA.
The news of Vilsack’s selection came out just hours after top civil rights leaders met virtually with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who’s been selected to serve as a senior adviser to the president. No farming or rural groups were on the call, but NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson brought up concerns about reports that Vilsack had emerged as the frontrunner to lead USDA, again.
Johnson offered a warning to the president-elect and his team, according to a source who was on the call: Picking Vilsack would have negative repercussions in the two razor-thin Senate races in Georgia. Black voters, and particularly rural Black voters, there have not forgotten that Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia and a well-respected civil rights leader, was wrongfully forced out of her job under Vilsack’s leadership after a deceptively edited video featured on Breitbart falsely suggested she was racist.
Once the full video of Sherrod’s remarks came to light, both Vilsack and the White…
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