By Jonathan Lemire and Russ Bynum
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sonny Perdue, a farmer’s son who built businesses in grain trading and trucking before becoming the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Associated Press has learned.
Perdue, 70, who comes from the small city of Bonaire in rural central Georgia, would be the first Southerner in the post in more than two decades. He is not related to or affiliated with the food company Perdue or the poultry producer Perdue Farms.
Agriculture secretaries are often from the Midwest, where corn and soybeans dominate the markets. U.S. farm policy has long been favorable to those crops, and congressional battles over massive farm bills every five years often divide along regional lines. Southerners have pushed for subsidy programs that are more favorable to rice and cotton, which can be more expensive to grow.
The last three agriculture secretaries were from Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska.
Perdue began his political career as a Democrat in the Georgia Legislature in the 1990s. After switching his allegiance to the Republican Party, he was elected governor in 2002. The victory over an incumbent Democrat completed Georgia’s shift to a solidly Republican state, ending generations of Democratic control of state government.
Despite the seismic political change, Perdue showed little interest in pushing big programs or signature legislation during his two terms. Instead he focused on finding ways to save money while improving customer service by state agencies — such as reducing wait times for renewing driver’s licenses. He often referred to himself as Georgia’s CEO.
“If I could choose my legacy, it would be the epithet that he made government work,” Perdue told The Associated Press in 2010 before he left office. “That’s really what I’ve focused on. It’s not some big monument.”
Critics accused Perdue of failing to tackle some of Georgia’s biggest problems, such as struggling public schools.
Perdue, who was re-elected in 2006, didn’t rely only on his business acumen as governor. A devout Southern Baptist, he also found a place for faith in his administration. In 2007, when a withering drought gripped Georgia and neighboring states, he held a prayer rally in front of the Capitol in Atlanta to pray for rain.
Perdue brought an end to Georgia’s longstanding conflicts over a state flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem. The controversial flag was replaced by lawmakers under Perdue’s Democratic predecessor, but the new design proved unpopular. Perdue insisted Georgia voters should pick the flag. A referendum was held in 2004, though Southern heritage groups were outraged that the options did not include the old flag with the Confederate symbol.
Under Perdue’s watch, Georgia adopted tough food-safety regulations after a deadly U.S. salmonella outbreak was traced to Georgia-made peanut butter.
He moved the state office that issues water permits for irrigation and other agricultural uses from Atlanta to rural south Georgia, where it would be closer to farmers. And Perdue poured millions of state dollars into Go Fish, a program that aimed to lure bass fishing tournaments to the state.
The ex-governor, whose full name is George Ervin Perdue III, was born in rural Perry, Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia, where he played football as a walk-on and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. Following a stint in the Air Force, he returned to Georgia and settled in Bonaire, a city of about 14,000 people.
Perdue already has family serving in Washington. A cousin, former Dollar General CEO David Perdue of Sea Island, Georgia, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.
(©2017 Associated Press. All rights reserved. Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.)