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Why is it so hard to select a secretary of agriculture for the next administration? 

It seems to be a difficult task for President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team, and there is probably good reason.

With a wide number of departments and agencies needing new leaders, there have been numerous candidates coming and going from Trump Tower, either begging and pleading for the nod or declining courteously, saying consideration was an honor. 

Many of the cabinet designees have been surprises and created a lot of head scratching. But that has been the hallmark of the Trump campaign over the past 18 months.

Unless there is an announcement between the deadline and printing of this column, the post of U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary is still an enigma, despite a bushel of candidates whose names have been suggested “by sources unauthorized to speak about it.” 

The latest were two Dakota ladies.

South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican, visited Trump Tower earlier this week, ostensibly as a potential cabinet candidate, since Trump Tower is not in her congressional district. Rep. Noem was said to have declined the opportunity, which is of little surprise. She is an announced candidate for South Dakota governor in the 2018 election cycle.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, has reportedly risen to the top of the Trump choice list, and remained there for the past 10 days. That signifies interest on the part of both sides, since she didn't quickly quash the speculation.

There is also some collaborative evidence that discussions continue about her candidacy for the post.  Since Sen. Heitkamp is a Democrat, her resignation from the Senate would be leave one less Democratic vote, and Senate Republican leaders already have selected a candidate to run in the special election required to fill the vacancy. Although North Dakota Democrats say Heitkamp “is not going anywhere,” they have a concern that the special election will put another Republican in the Senate.

Why would the Trump administration want Heitkamp to run the USDA? Her voting record reflects rural, conservative philosophies, which helped propel President-elect Trump to the White House. She also voted against the Environmental Protection Agency's relatively new Clean Water Rule, which has been a wrenching challenge for farmers. And she also would provide another female perspective to the cabinet, which many seasoned politicians would endorse.

She wouldn't be the first female secretary. That designation went to California’s Ann Veneman, who presided over the USDA complex at 14th and Independence from 2001 to 2005 as the first agriculture secretary for President George W. Bush.

One of the challenges for finally settling upon someone for secretary could be the makeup of the Trump campaign’s agriculture advisory group.  The membership came from all quarters of agriculture, in an effort to attract votes and prepare the candidate for issues that may have to be addressed. While many filtered into the transition team, they still reflect a cornucopia of views about agriculture policy, many of which are in conflict.

And whoever is selected will have to relate well to production agriculture, as well as the 50 million consumers who receive food assistance, as well as a growing number of critics of USDA and its large budget. Although the secretary doesn't have a bow to the USDA’s opponents, he or she will have to engage them in a dialogue, or suddenly those disparate voices could become a coalition that will wreak havoc on USDA’s friends in Congress.

He or she will have to be a good politician, and fill the big shoes being left by outgoing Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been one of the longest serving and enjoyed the support of all served by the USDA.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene.


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