Vilsack named to lead U.S.D.A.
December 17, 2008
by Josh Sosland
CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama held a press conference today to nominate former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture.
While speculation about Mr. Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture did not gain nearly the media attention of other Cabinet picks, Mr. Vilsack had been atop a short list of names of candidates to the post. Mr. Vilsack is one of four members of the prospective Obama administration who had competed with the president-elect for the Democratic nomination. He dropped out before the primaries began and supported Senator Hillary Clinton until she conceded defeat.
Mr. Vilsack’s roots are not in farming. A native of Pittsburgh, Mr. Vilsack received an undergraduate degree from Hamilton College in New York and a law degree from Albany Law School in 1976.
At Hamilton, Mr. Vilsack met his future wife Christine Bell, and after law school the couple moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he joined his father-in-law’s law practice. Mr. Vilsack was thrust into public service in 1987 when he was appointed mayor to succeed Edd King who had been shot to death during a city council meeting by a disgruntled citizen.
Mr. Vilsack was elected to the state senate in 1992 and was elected governor in 1998. During two terms as governor, Mr. Vilsack took steps to stimulate Iowa’s economy while also cutting the state’s budget. Those cuts included a furlough of 10% of the Iowa workforce.
The Vilsack gubernatorial administration’s policy focus was not heavily on agricultural issues, though he was an advocate for alternative fuels, including ethanol. He also was an advocate for tax subsidies for ethanol producers.
Mr. Vilsack headed governor groups focusing on biotechnology, ethanol and Midwestern issues, and he eventually led the Democratic Governors Association. He also headed the Democratic Leadership Council, a group characterized as "moderate leaning" that was prominent under former President Bill Clinton.
Since ending his presidential bid, Mr. Vilsack has held a number of positions, including one at Iowa State University’s Biosafety Institute. There he had a role in analyzing the risks and benefits of agricultural (plant and animal) biotechnology.