Central Coast native and former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is being considered for Secretary of Agriculture, replacing Secretary Tom Vilsack as he left the Agriculture Department a week before his tenure ends and before President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
Vilsack, who has led USDA for eight years and was President Barack Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet secretary, told employees in an email that Friday is his final day. The email did not say why he was leaving early. He has said he wants to remain involved with agriculture after leaving government, but has not detailed those plans.
As Vilsack leaves the department, some in farm country are worried that agriculture may be a low priority for the new administration. It is the only Cabinet position Trump has not moved to fill, yet rural voters were key to delivering him the presidency.
Farm-state lawmakers in Congress say they are eagerly awaiting the decision.
“We brought him home,” Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Thursday of delivering on Trump’s win. “Farmers, ranchers and small town America brought him home. So obviously they’d like to see a secretary of Agriculture that would be their champion. That hasn’t occurred yet. So we hope it will.”
According to exit polls conducted for AP and television networks by Edison Research, about 17 percent of voters in this year’s election were from small cities or rural areas, and 62 percent of them said they voted for Trump. But Trump has little agricultural history, and spoke rarely about farm issues on the campaign trail.
“People don’t know what he stands for in agriculture and everyone’s waiting for the secretary to be named so you can get some clues,” said Roger Johnson, head of the National Farmers Union. Johnson said there is a “growing, intense frustration” that a secretary hasn’t been named.
Trump and his team have interviewed several candidates, including Maldonado, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and they have also talked to potential candidates from Texas and Indiana, home state of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Ted McKinney, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, was at Trump Tower on Thursday.
Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in a daily briefing call with reporters on Friday, played down any talk of a delay with the agriculture selection, saying that the president-elect had given it the same amount of attention and consideration as his other Cabinet picks.
Spicer said Trump had met with “several” qualified candidates and would make a decision in the near future.
Vilsack is one of the nation’s longest-serving agriculture secretaries and has remained generally popular in farm country as he worked to balance the needs of high-dollar production agriculture with other growing parts of the industry, including organics. During his tenure, he also focused on rebuilding rural communities, making school meals healthier and resolving civil rights claims against the department.
As for his next steps, he said in a statement that “I intend to be involved in promotion of agriculture and rural America, I hope to be connected to a university and work with young people, and I want to spend time with my family in Iowa.”
Michael Scuse, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, will be acting secretary until Trump is inaugurated.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.