USA First Look

Sonny Perdue: Will Republicans accept a former Democrat as ag secretary? (+video)

Perdue – a onetime Democrat – founded a grain and fertilizer company and was an advisor to Trump during his campaign.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue talks with reporters after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York in November, 2016.
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A former Democrat has emerged as US President-elect Donald Trump's leading candidate to head the US Department of Agriculture, as the incoming administration looks to fill the final few slots on its roster of cabinet positions.

Sonny Perdue III, who worked on Mr. Trump's agricultural advisory committee during the campaign, served three terms as a Democratic state senator in the Georgia General Assembly before switching parties in 1998. He won reelection twice as a Republican then served two terms as the state's first Republican governor in more than 130 years.

With pressure mounting around the agricultural secretary pick, though, would Republicans in the US Senate be sufficiently satisfied with Mr. Perdue to confirm him? Trump has announced his picks for 18 of the cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation, as The Washington Post reported. Thirteen are white men. That has led some to press Trump to diversify his administration by selecting a female or Hispanic agriculture secretary.

Trump has interviewed a number of candidates for the post, including former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of South Dakota, as Politico's Catherine Boudreau reported Monday.

"But those discussions have sparked backlash from Trump's agricultural advisory committee, a team of Republican farm-industry leaders who supported him throughout the campaign and played a key role in getting him elected," she wrote. "They want to see one of their own in the job."

Perdue "would be likely to assuage those concerns," Ms. Boudreau added.

Perdue, a veterinarian who has no relation to the family that owns chicken producer Perdue Farms Inc., has owned agribusiness companies for nearly four decades. In 2011, after finishing his second term as governor – the limit imposed by Georgia's constitution – Perdue founded Perdue Partners LLC, an Atlanta-based trading company, as Bloomberg News reported.

Trump had been meeting with a number of other possible candidates as well, including Elsa Murano, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety under former President George W. Bush; Chuck Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas; and Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller.

Whomever is ultimately confirmed as the next agriculture secretary will have big boots to fill, not just because the USDA includes 29 agencies with nearly 100,000 employees and a budget of more than $20 billion, as Lani Furbank wrote for Food Tank in October:

The current Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is the fourth-longest serving Secretary in history, and he has built a strong legacy over the past several years. He chaired the first-ever White House Rural Council to improve services for rural businesses, and the USDA has helped increase the number of farmers' markets in the United States by 180 percent since 2006. Vilsack helped pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act to combat child hunger and obesity, and he has worked to attract and support young farmers in agriculture careers.

When asked by Politico about reports that he is now Trump's leading pick, Perdue declined to confirm or deny them Monday, noting that he has been "impressed" by the list of those who have interviewed for the position.

The secretary of agriculture is in charge of the US Forest Service and the USDA, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) "food stamps" initiatives, as Policy.Mic reported.

This report includes material from Reuters.