If conventional leadership and bureaucratic competency had a face, it would look exactly like Thomas J. Vilsack: round as an apple pie, chin disappearing under sagging cheeks, greying (and amply present) hair.
President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of Vilsack, the two-term (1998-2006) Iowa governor, to lead the U. S. Department of Agriculture marks the third non-farming Midwestern governor in a row – first Nebraska’s Johanns, then North Dakota’s Schafer – to be secretary of agriculture. All are more bank managers than ag innovators.
Indeed, Vilsack is a trial lawyer by training who came to Iowa for love, then got into politics. My only encounter with him came on a sunny September 1997 day when we both addressed an Iowa Farmers Union meeting. Vilsack was cruising for agriculture endorsements to boost his bid to succeed then-retiring governor Terry Branstad.
As Vilsack spoke, I asked his lone aide if the senator was running as an independent.
Well, I replied, his campaign literature didn’t identify him as either a Republican or a Democrat. So, he must be running either as an independent or a chicken, right – too scared to list his party affiliation. (The aide said “Democrat,” then left in a huff.)
As a born-and-baptized middle-of-the-roader, his subsequent election didn’t answer my question: he backed just about every idea Big Ag brought to Iowa’s golden-domed statehouse even as he publicly worried about rural sustainability, global warming and natural resource conservation.
And he didn’t do any of it halfheartedly. He was an all-in supporter of big biotech, big pig, big biofuels and often offered big state money to underwrite bioventures. His gung-ho booster-ism of “pharming” earned him the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s “Governor of the Year” award in 2001. To sustainable and organic farm and food backers, that was akin to Attila the Hun anointing Vilsack “Pillager of the Year.” To the then-growing movement, it was, and remains, an unforgivable wrong step in the wrong direction for the governor of one of America’s leading food states.
It wasn’t the wrong step, however, if you had bigger political ambitions, and Vilsack clearly did. Since Iowa has no term limits on its governor, Vilsack could have stayed as long as voters would have him.
But the Potomac bug bit Vilsack and he left to run for the White House despite an already-crowded field of big – really big – hitters. It was a brief affliction whose cure, a steamroller named Barack Obama, pushed him back into private citizenship and public law.
Then Obama called Dec. 17 and the ex-governor is now the secretary-to-be. His confirmation, an almost certain 90-something-to-zero slam dunk, will be squired through the Senate by agriculture committee chair Tom Harkin, a fellow Democrat and fellow Iowan.
Once installed, though, Vilsack will face two paths to posterity. If he still burns with ambition, he’ll take the smooth, well-marked path paved by Big Ag, Big Bio and Big Money because it favours a higher profile and higher office.
If, however, he views his tenure at USDA as the climax of his political career, he might see farmers and food as equals and place both ahead of agbiz’s ceaseless quest for profit and unending drive to use government to undermine competition and quality.
That’s the path 90 per cent of food producers – and 100 per cent of consumers – want and need Vilsack to take. What remains to be seen is if he is an independent leader or just another agbiz chicken.