11.16.20 Politico: Progressives push for left-leaning USDA boss

Progressives push for left-leaning USDA boss


11/16/2020 10:00 AM EST

With help from Helena Bottemiller Evich and Doug Palmer

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— Progressive farm groups are mobilizing to pressure the incoming Biden administration to select a more left-leaning Agriculture Secretary, and they’re promising a fight if former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat, is the nominee.

— At the same time, a coalition of groups are backing Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who is flexing her credentials for the top job. Fudge sat down with POLITICO to talk trade aid, food stamps and climate change.

— The Trump administration’s investigations into Vietnamese trade practices could lead to painful repercussions for U.S. dairy and poultry exporters if tariffs are imposed, according to farm industry groups.


A tug-of-war is unfolding over the apparent frontrunner for the top USDA job under incoming Biden administration. Our Liz Crampton and Helena Bottemiller Evich report today that progressive ag groups have their knives out for Heidi Heitkamp, who was long seen as a favorite to run the department under President-elect Joe Biden, given her centrist record and friendly relationship with the farm industry.

A coalition of more than a dozen groups, from family farmers and organic consumers to environmental advocates, are making plans to publicly oppose a possible Heitkamp nomination in the coming days. “There’s going to be a big fight on Heitkampif Biden puts her name forward,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of Friends of the Earth’s food and ag program.

— What’s their beef? They see the former senator — whose name was floated in 2016 as a potential USDA chief under the Trump administration — as too close to corporate agribusinesses and the fossil fuel sector.

While much of the resistance comes from the most left-leaning corners of ag, major associations like the National Farmers Union are also seeing fault lines form about whether to get behind Heitkamp. And, of course, the divisions are part of the broader debate among Democrats about whether to move farther left or hew closer to the middle, after Biden beat Trump but the party underperformed in congressional and state races.

Since losing her reelection bid in 2018, Heitkamp has focused on pushing Democrats to engage more with rural communities, which have overwhelmingly rejected the party in recent elections. When she was in Congress, she fought for North Dakota crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets, and she was vocal about the negative impact of Trump’s trade war on agriculture.

— Heitkamp is also thought to have the support of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, one of Biden’s top advisers, though Vilsack told Pro Ag he doesn’t have a favorite for the job.

Another thing Heitkamp has going for her: Republicans are poised to keep control of the Senate for the next two years, barring a Democratic sweep in two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5. That means moderate Cabinet nominations could face a much smoother path to confirmation than more left-leaning picks.

The competition: As POLITICO scooped last week, Rep. Marcia Fudge, a senior House Ag member, is publicly touting her credentials for the job — and she has growing support from progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus.

— Fudge sat down with POLITICO to share her thoughts on how to handle Trump’s record-setting farm bailouts; taking a “hard look” at nutrition programs; and getting farmers to buy in on battling climate change. Read the Q&A here.

Who else is in the mix? To be sure, there are plenty of names being floated as possible contenders, including California Ag Secretary Karen Ross and even House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson, who was defeated earlier this month in his conservative Minnesota district. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has also started coming up more after he lost his bid for Senate.