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Picking an agriculture secretary: The man who's not on anyone's list

First of all, let me say that I have nothing against the state of Iowa. I have criticized its senior senator, Charles Grassley, but then he's criticized farmers in the South - unjustifiably.

Iowans are nice people. They take growing corn and soybeans very seriously, and they don't try to grow cotton and rice. They've built a lot of ethanol plants, opening up some markets for Southern corn.

But that doesn't mean we should have an Iowan for secretary of agriculture, especially one with little experience in agriculture like former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is being pushed for the position by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

Recent reports have tried to make Vilsack the frontrunner for the post in the new administration, ahead of such possibilities as Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, and Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. (Peterson has said he's not interested in the job.)

Vilsack was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who finished way behind President-elect Obama, former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton in last January's Iowa caucuses. He quit the race a month later and threw his support to Sen. Clinton. After she withdrew, he worked for Obama.

Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been a Vilsack supporter since the latter ran for his first term as governor of Iowa in 1998. Grassley says he thinks it would be beneficial for the state to have an Iowan “close to the seat of power.”

Recently, Vilsack has written articles about carbon credits and renewable energy apparently to establish some kind of credentials in agriculture. (He has been working for a law firm in Des Moines since ending his campaign for the presidency.)

With any luck, Vilsack's candidacy for ag secretary will play out along the lines of the old Washington saying that those that don't know, talk, and those that know, keep it to themselves.

A candidate who hasn't been on anyone's list is former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm, who represented Abilene for 26 years before Republicans gerrymandered him out of his House seat in 2004.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee in his last six years in Congress, Stenholm was one of the authors of the 2002 farm bill, which provided the basis for the new farm bill, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. A fiscal conservative, he helped lead the Blue Dog Democrats in Congress.

That might prove to be a problem for some members of the Obama circle, but the president-elect has assembled a team of economic advisers with widely divergent backgrounds. Maybe there's room for a “maverick” Texas in his cabinet.

Vilsack, by most accounts, is a nice guy who can be very accommodating to his supporters. After two secretaries who seemed more interested in pleasing the White House, it would be nice to have someone who would work for farmers.

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