Tom Vilsack is a corporate yes man and former lobbyist with a dismal record in his previous time as secretary. This is appalling
‘If the Biden team was looking for ways to unite the multi-racial working class, they have done so – in full-throated opposition to this pick.’ Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters
Mon 21 Dec 2020 09.55 EST
It’s unlikely that Joe Biden expected that, of all his cabinet nominees, his choice for US agriculture secretary would cause the most blowback. Yet that is exactly what happened.
The former secretary Tom Vilsack, fresh off the revolving door, is a kind of all-in-one package of what frustrates so many about the Democratic party. His previous tenure leading the department was littered with failures, ranging from distorting data about Black farmers and discrimination to bowing to corporate conglomerates.
Vilsack’s nomination has been roundly rejected by some of the exact people who helped Biden defeat Trump: organizations representing Black people, progressive rural organizations, family farmers and environmentalists. If the Biden team was looking for ways to unite the multi-racial working class, they have done so – in full-throated opposition to this pick.
We remember when Vilsack toured agricultural communities, hearing devastating testimony of big ag’s criminal treatment of contract farmers. He went through the motions of expressing concern, but nothing came of it: the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) kowtowed to agribusiness lobbyists and corporate interests, squandering a golden opportunity to rein in meat processing monopolies.
We remember when Vilsack’s USDA foreclosed on Black farmers who had outstanding complaints about racial discrimination and whitewashed its own record on civil rights. That’s in addition to the ousting of Shirley Sherrod, a Black and female USDA official, when the far-right media published a doctored hit piece, forcing her resignation.
We remember when Vilsack left his job at the USDA a week early to become a lobbyist as the chief executive of the US Dairy Export Council. He was paid a million-dollar salary to push the same failed policies of his USDA tenure, carrying out the wishes of dairy monopolies. Despite being nominated to lead the USDA again, he’s still collecting paychecks as a lobbyist.
The president-elect should have righted these wrongs by charting a bold, new course for rural communities and farmers in America. Instead, Vilsack’s nomination signaled more of the same from Democratic leadership.
“Democrats need to do something big for rural people to start supporting them again,” Francis Thicke, a family farmer in Fairfield, Iowa, told us recently. “The status quo won’t work, and that’s one reason why Vilsack is the wrong choice.”
Following Trump’s win in 2017, the organization I direct, People’s Action, embarked on a massive listening project. We traveled across rural America – from family farms in Iowa, to the Driftless region of Wisconsin, up the Thumb of Michigan, to the hills of Appalachia – and had 10,000 conversations with rural Americans. When we asked the people we met the biggest barrier to their community getting what it needed, the top answer (81%) was a government captured by corporate power. The Vilsack pick does nothing to assuage these concerns.
As Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, told Politico: “Vilsack is not good for the agriculture industry, period. When it comes to civil rights, the rights of people, he’s not for that.”
Mike Callicrate, a rancher from Colorado Springs, was equally direct. “Vilsack assisted big agribusiness monopolies in preying upon and gutting rural America,” he told us, “greatly reducing opportunities for young people to return and remain on our farms and ranches. His policy led to catastrophic rural decline, followed by suicide rates not seen since the 1980s farm crisis.”
Biden had a chance to finally right some wrongs. Sadly, he missed the mark on this one by a country mile.
• George Goehl is the director of People’s Action