Obama taps Iowa’s Tom Vilsack as ag secretary


CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama selected former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his choice for secretary of agriculture, announcing the decision Dec. 17 in Chicago.

At the same time, Obama also named Colorado Senator Ken Salazar as his choice for Secretary of the Interior.

During the announcement, President-elect Obama made clear he considers both secretaries-designate to be key members of his energy and environment team.

“Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home,” Obama said.

He also said his cabinet appointments are “the team we need to make the rural agenda America’s agenda.”

About Vilsack

Vilsack, 58, was elected governor of Iowa in 1998, the first Democrat elected to that position in 32 years. After winning re-election in 2002, he chose not to seek a third term. Prior to serving as governor, he served six years as a state senator.

He holds a law degree from Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y., and practiced law in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, early in his career. He was the first Democrat to formally announce his candidacy for U.S. president in the 2008 election, but left the race in early 2007 and joined the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, consulting clients in the fields of energy conservation, renewable energy and agribusiness development.

In September 2007, he was named a Distinguished Fellow at Iowa State University’s Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products and began to work quarter-time for the institute.

Born in Pittsburgh, Vilsack was orphaned at birth and later adopted. He met his future wife while attending Hamilton College in New York, and they settled in her home town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

At the Obama announcement, secretary-designate Vilsack spoke of his commitment to “promote American leadership in response to global climate change,” and declared his intent to “place nutrition at the center of all food programs administered by the Department.”

Mainstream ag pleased

Both the National Farmers Union and American Farm Bureau Federation were pleased with Vilsack’s appointment.

“Being from Iowa, Gov. Vilsack has an understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in rural America,” said Farmers Union President Tom Buis. “I think Gov. Vilsack is a great choice.”

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said Vilsack, as governor, “was an ardent supporter of furthering the use of renewable fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and wind, as well as an advocate for biotechnology.

“He has been a strong proponent of international trade and expanding our export markets,” Stallman added.

Not so pleased

The Organic Consumers Association was one of the first groups to express its dismay at Obama’s USDA pick, saying it’s “business as usual” and not the “change” Obama promised Americans.

“Obama’s choice for secretary of agriculture points to the continuation of agribusiness as usual, the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture,” said association Executive Director Ronnie Cummins.

Interior overhaul

During the Dec. 17 announcement, President-elect Obama was blunt in his desire to fix the problems that have plagued the Department of the Interior.

“I want a more proactive Interior Department,” he said. “I also want an Interior Department that very frankly cleans up its act. There have been too many problems and too much emphasis on big time lobbyists in Washington… That’s going to change under Ken Salazar.”


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