Joe Biden is unlikely to expect, of all his cabinet candidates, his choice for US Secretary of Agriculture to cause the most setbacks. Yet that is exactly what happened.
Former Secretary Tom Vilsack, fresh out of the revolving door, is kind of an all-in-one package of what frustrates so many in the Democratic Party. His previous tenure as the head of the department was fraught with failures, ranging from distorted data on black farmers and discrimination to reverence in front of corporate conglomerates.
Vilsack’s appointment was flatly rejected by some of the exact people who helped Biden defeat Trump: organizations representing blacks, progressive rural organizations, family farmers, and environmentalists. If Biden’s team were looking for ways to unite the multiracial working class, they did – in staunch opposition to that choice.
We remember when Vilsack visited farming communities, hearing devastating testimonies about the criminal treatment of contract farmers by big business. He went through motions to express his concern, but nothing came of it: the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) bowed down to agribusiness lobbyists and interests. companies, squandering a golden opportunity to curb the monopolies in meat processing.
We remember when the USDA in Vilsack excluded black farmers who had outstanding racial discrimination complaints and whitewashed its own civil rights record. This comes in addition to the ousting of Shirley Sherrod, a black and female USDA official, when the far-right media published a fake bestselling article, forcing her to resign.
We remember when Vilsack quit his USDA job a week earlier to become a lobbyist as CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. He was paid a million dollar salary for pushing the same failed policies of his term at the USDA, making the wishes of the dairy monopolies come true. Although he was nominated again to lead the USDA, he still collecting paychecks as a lobbyist.
The president-elect should have righted those wrongs by charting a bold new course for America’s rural communities and farmers. Instead, Vilsack’s appointment signaled more of the same from Democratic leaders.
“Democrats need to do something big to get rural people back to supporting them,” Francis Thicke, a family farmer from Fairfield, Iowa, recently told us. “The status quo won’t work, and that’s one of the reasons Vilsack is the wrong choice.”
Following Trump’s victory in 2017, the organization I lead, People’s Action, embarked on a huge listening project. We traveled across rural America – from family farms in Iowa to the Driftless region of Wisconsin, to the thumb of Michigan, to the Appalachian Hills – and had 10,000 conversations with rural Americans. When we asked people that we have the biggest barrier for their community to get what they need, the highest response (81%) was government captured by corporate power. The Vilsack opening pick does nothing to allay these concerns.
As Michael Stovall, founder of Independent Black Farmers, told Politico, “Vilsack is not good for the farming industry, period. When it comes to civil rights, the rights of individuals, he is not for that.
Mike Callicrate, a rancher from Colorado Springs, was equally blunt. “Vilsack has helped the big agribusiness monopolies attack and empty rural America,” he told us, “dramatically reducing the opportunities for young people to come back and stay on our farms. and ranches. His policies led to a catastrophic rural decline, followed by suicide rates not seen since the agricultural crisis of the 1980s.
Biden finally got the chance to right some wrongs. Unfortunately, he missed the mark on this one kilometer in the countryside.