Trump’s missing Cabinet secretary – Politico
A behind-the-scenes fight between agribusiness tycoons and members of Donald Trump’s camp who want more diversity in the Cabinet has turned the selection process for Agriculture secretary into a months-long battle.
The usually low-profile post remains the only Cabinet-level job without a nominee in the final days before Trump is inaugurated. Word leaked out two weeks ago that Trump was poised to pick former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, but the announcement never came.
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Now, sources say Perdue’s status as the favorite may be in doubt amid a last-minute push for former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who offers Trump one last chance to put a Hispanic in the Cabinet.
As the various sides have battled for weeks, Trump’s farm policy advisers and the rural voters who helped propel him to victory have been left almost entirely in the dark.
“It’s very risky to think you know anything, because you don’t,” said John Block, a member of Trump’s agriculture advisory council who served as Agriculture secretary under Ronald Reagan. “We don’t know anything.”
The parade of candidates to Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower range from Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller — who’s also a rodeo cowboy — to Susan Combs, a former Texas agriculture commissioner who penned a steamy romance novel and supported abortion rights. Most recently, Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney and Kip Tom, an Indiana farmer who ran for Congress last year, have also visited Trump Tower.
Trump appeared ready to use the post to pick a Hispanic for his Cabinet in late December, but members of his agricultural advisory committee — a group of about 70 farm-industry leaders who supported the president-elect during the campaign — caught wind of the plan and publicly complained. Leading the opposition was a handful of agribusiness moguls and politicians from Indiana with close ties to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, including Tom and Forrest Lucas, the founder and CEO of Lucas Oil.
Lucas was “apoplectic,” after hearing this month that former Texas Rep. Henry Bonilla, a one-time television executive and former chair of the House Appropriations Committee’s agriculture panel, was in the running, one source said, and called Pence to air his grievances. Others have also called Pence multiple times to shoot down various candidates who don’t come from a traditional Midwestern farming background, according to a source with direct knowledge of the conversations.
After that, Perdue, a two-term governor of Georgia who has the support of farm groups, re-surfaced as a top contender.
Even so, a late-game push by major agricultural leaders from the Midwest for Maldonado last weekend appears to be gaining some traction, a source familiar with the discussions said, though it’s unclear whether the moderate West Coast Republican will be able to muster enough support to overtake Perdue.
Maldonado’s support “has grown from just agriculture folks in California and the communities of color space into a broader ag space,” said a source familiar with the Trump transition.
Hanging in the balance: The Department of Agriculture, one of the largest federal agencies with a $150 billion budget. It oversees America’s food system, hands out food stamps to more than 40 million people and spearheads development projects in rural areas that helped Trump win the election.
“It defies logic to figure out why it’s taken so long,” said Dan Glickman, who served as Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton. “It befuddles me.”
Trump has reportedly taken longer than any president-elect since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in February 1933 in announcing his Agriculture secretary. Barack Obama chose Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture secretary who left last Friday, on Dec. 17, 2008, while George W. Bush picked Ann Veneman for the job on Dec. 20, 2000.
Part of the problem, agriculture sources say, is there’s no point person for the search in the transition; instead, warring factions within Trump’s orbit are constantly communicating via the media and unofficial backchannels.
At the same time that agribusiness leaders are pushing one of their own for the job, some in Trump’s inner circle have been aggressively pushing to add diversity to the Cabinet. It would be the first time since before 1988 that a president didn’t name a Hispanic to the Cabinet.
“It would be shameful to not have a Latino in his Cabinet,” said Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors, who played a crucial role in selecting Vilsack. “And given the disproportionate role of Latinos in our food chain, from growing, to producing to serving, USDA seems like a terrific place for a Latino voice.”
But even those asking for a Latino acknowledge that the pool is especially small for agriculture — a field that’s dominated by old white men.
“There’s a relatively short list of Latinos and Latinas who are available for a Cabinet position,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “They have to be a Republican, and they have to be someone who didn’t endorse his opponent.”
Elsa Murano, a Cuban-born professor at Texas A&M University who once served as the food safety undersecretary at USDA also made visits but it’s unclear whether she remains in contention.
Murano told POLITICO on Tuesday that she hasn’t received word about the position and declined to discuss the process.
Javier Palomarez, chair of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said his organization repeatedly lobbied Trump’s team to pick Maldonado.
“He grew up as a migrant farmworker; he’s picked the crops; he ran a family operation that depended on agriculture,” he said. “No one has come close to that kind of experience.”
But Maldonado, while well-liked by Republicans in California, had some of his own liabilities, including a vote to raise taxes in the legislature and a reality TV audition tape laced with sexual humor.
After serving all eight years of the Obama administration, Vilsack stepped down from his post last Friday.
Vilsack, who has repeatedly expressed frustration about the lack of nominee, told POLITICO he’s leaving a copy of his recent exit memo on the USDA’s work and a unaddressed note on his desk for his successor.
“Hopefully it will be helpful to him or her,” he said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.