Biden's pick for agriculture secretary is a disturbing omen about his presidency
Photo: Larry Downing / Reuters
It is unlikely that Joe Biden expected his election as Secretary of Agriculture to be the biggest setback of any cabinet candidate. But that's exactly what happened.
Former Secretary Tom Vilsack, fresh off the revolving door, is sort of an all-in-one package of what frustrates so many about the Democratic Party. His previous tenure as head of department was riddled with errors, ranging from falsified data on black farmers and discrimination to bowing to corporate conglomerates.
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Vilsack's nomination was flatly rejected by some of the people who helped Biden defeat Trump: organizations representing blacks, progressive rural organizations, family farmers and environmentalists. If the Biden team sought ways to unite the multi-ethnic working class, they did so - in full opposition to that choice.
We remember when Vilsack toured agricultural communities and heard devastating statements about the criminal treatment of contract farmers by Big AG. He ran out of requests for concern, but nothing came of it: The Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) were indebted to agribusiness lobbyists and corporate interests and missed a golden opportunity to curb meat-processing monopolies.
We remember when Vilsacks USDA excluded black farmers who had outstanding racial discrimination complaints and whitewashed their own civil rights records. This is on top of the overthrow of Shirley Sherrod, a black and female USDA official, when the far right media published a doctoral hit that forced her to resign.
We remember when Vilsack left his job at the USDA a week earlier to become a lobbyist as CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. He was paid a million dollar salary to enforce the same failed guidelines of his USDA tenure and satisfy the wishes of the dairy monopolies. Despite being nominated again to head the USDA, he still collects paychecks as a lobbyist.
The president-elect should have corrected this injustice by embarking on a bold new course for rural communities and farmers in America. Instead, Vilsack's nomination signaled more of the same from the democratic leadership.
"Democrats have to do something big to get the rural population back to support them," Francis Thicke, a family farmer in Fairfield, Iowa, recently told us. "The status quo is not going to work, and that's one reason Vilsack is the wrong choice."
After Trump's victory in 2017, People's Action, an organization I run, started a massive listening project. We traveled across rural America - from family farms in Iowa to the driftless region of Wisconsin, Thumb from Michigan to the hills of Appalachia - and had 10,000 conversations with rural Americans. When we asked people if we had the biggest obstacle for their community to get what they needed, the best answer (81%) was a government captured by corporate power. The Vilsack choice does nothing to address these concerns.
Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, told Politico: “Vilsack is not good for agriculture, period. When it comes to civil rights, human rights, he's not for it. "
Mike Callicrate, a Colorado Springs rancher, was also direct. "Vilsack has helped large agribusiness monopolies capture and disembowel rural America," he said. His policies resulted in catastrophic rural decline, followed by suicide rates that have not been seen since the farm crisis of the 1980s. "
Biden had a chance to finally correct a few mistakes. Unfortunately, in this case, he missed the mark by a country mile.
George Goehl is the director of People's Action
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