An unlikely fight erupts over the choice of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. for the post of secretary of agriculture, pitting a powerful black lawmaker who wants to refocus the Agriculture Department on hunger against traditionalists who believe the department should be a voice for rural America. .
Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black member of Congress and perhaps Mr. Biden’s most important supporter in the Democratic primary, strongly advocates for Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of the ‘Ohio, an African American. Democrat of Ohio.
Mr Clyburn, whose endorsement of Mr Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary helped turn the tide of the former vice president’s nomination, spoke to him on the phone about Ms Fudge as recently as this week. The lawmaker also lobbied on his behalf with two of the president-elect’s closest advisers and discussed the issue with President Nancy Pelosi.
“I feel very strong,” Clyburn said in an interview Wednesday of Ms. Fudge, who heads the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition and oversight subcommittee.
“It’s time for Democrats to treat the agriculture ministry like the kind of department it claims to be,” he added, noting that a large chunk of the budget “deals with consumer and consumer issues. nutrition and things that affect people’s daily lives. “
But there are complications. Two of Mr. Biden’s agricultural state allies are also being discussed for the post: Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota, and Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who served as secretary of the agriculture of President Barack Obama.
The delicate proxy clash over the post, which is usually not as coveted as more prestigious cabinet positions, has pitted Democrats keen to focus on issues such as hunger and nutrition over members more traditional party who believe the department should represent rural America. The sprawling agency oversees agricultural policy, forestry service, food security and animal health, but also the food stamp program, nutrition services, rural housing and rural development.
More broadly, the debate illustrates the challenge Mr. Biden faces in building his administration. With each meeting, he makes connections with others, and if he doesn’t select a diverse candidate for one position, it becomes more likely that he will for other positions.
The job in agriculture is specifically to pinch Mr Biden between two of his central campaign themes, which he repeated in no uncertain terms this month in his victory speech: that he has a special debt to voters. African Americans and wants to be president. for all Americans, including those who did not vote for him.
And nowhere has Mr. Biden been worse than in rural America, especially in the whitest parts of the agricultural belt.
“This is a choice only Joe Biden can make, and it will make him understand the unique challenges of rural America and what needs to happen in rural America in the future,” Ms. Heitkamp said, a moderate that was defeated in 2018 after serving. as attorney general and then senator in one of the country’s least populated states.
Recalling her campaigning efforts on behalf of Mr Biden’s “grand rural plan”, Ms Heitkamp predicted that the president-elect would “pick the person who can implement this rural plan”.
Mr Clyburn, however, said the Agriculture Department had for too long seemed to ‘favor big agricultural interests’ over less wealthy people, whether they were’ small farmers in Clarendon County, in South Carolina, or food stamp recipients in Cleveland, Ohio ”. Fudge’s hometown.
Mr Clyburn did not mention Ms Heitkamp, but he was hesitant about Mr Vilsack taking over the ministry he had led during the eight years of the Obama administration.
“I don’t know why we need to recycle,” Clyburn said, echoing complaints that Mr. Biden is only for Mr. Obama’s third term. “There is a strong feeling that black farmers haven’t had a chance to feel good” under Mr. Vilsack, Mr. Clyburn said.
Mr. Vilsack did not respond in kind. He said he had “all the respect in the world for Rep. Clyburn” and learned from him.
The former governor of Iowa, who along with his wife was one of Mr Biden’s early supporters during his first campaign for president and again this year, said he was not looking for a position in agriculture, but that he was careful not to denounce his interest in the job.
“If there is anything I can do to help the country, great,” Vilsack said. “But it is the elected president who makes this decision.”
When he does, he will be fully aware of the position of one of his most prominent supporters.
In addition to his conversations with Mr Biden, Mr Clyburn contacted Steve Ricchetti, who will serve as an adviser to the White House, and Ted Kaufman, Mr Biden’s longest-serving adviser and former chief of staff.
Democratic House leaders are sensitive to the creation of vacancies in the House, even in safe quarters like Ms Fudge’s, given their slim majority. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, might not plan a quick special election to replace her. But Mr Clyburn said he hoped from his conversation with Ms Pelosi that she would “give the green light” to Ms Fudge.
Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Ms Pelosi, declined to comment on the discussion. But he signaled that the speaker, who appointed Ms Fudge as chair of a subcommittee two years ago to defuse a potential rivalry for the post of chair, would not object to his departure.
“The speaker wishes the full contribution of House Democrats to Biden-Harris’ tenure and to the future represented in the administration,” Hammill said.
As with other positions, the Department of Agriculture’s decision could be resolved by finding another position elsewhere in the administration for whoever is left behind.
A spokesperson for Mr Biden’s transition declined to comment on the appointment, but said the president-elect “prioritizes the diversity of ideologies and backgrounds as he assembles a team of experts that looks like America to serve in its administration ”.
Ms Fudge, however, has other important advocates, including Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who said he had argued for her “with four or five transitional Biden people.” His colleagues on the House agriculture committee were also in favor.
“It’s time for a hunger advocate to lead the Agriculture Department, and no one could run the agency better than Marcia Fudge,” said Rep. Filemon Vela, Democrat of Texas.
Most important, however, are three black House Democrats who are close to each other and Ms. Fudge. The group includes Mr. Clyburn, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who is leaving Congress to become a senior White House adviser.
As for Mr Biden, Mr Clyburn said: “He really likes Fudge.”
Recounting his conversation with the president-elect, the congressman said he wanted to let him make the decision. “I just told her that I thought she would be a very good candidate and help refocus what the department is.”