First in, first out in the USDA hunt

By Reuters Staff
December 10, 2008

One of the great rules of inventory management — first in, first out — could apply to the process of deducing who will be agriculture secretary in the Obama administration with a wry renaming. In this iteration, it is “first named, first discarded.”

The list of potential nominees deemed as front-runners or consensus choices to run USDA has churned continuously since Barack Obama won the presidential election. And it is unclear when a nominee will be named. Most of the front-runners have faded from attention like flowers at the approach of winter.

In early November, the list of potential nominees was filled with Washington heavyweights, like National Farmers Union president Tom Buis or former Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, along with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

They were superseded by a series of state officials, such as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff. Still more potential names surfaced, including first-tem Montana Sen. John Tester and John BoydSalazar, head of the National Black Farmers Association.

One agricultural commentator listed more than a dozen possible candidates at a conference last week, ranging from Patty Judge, the Iowa lieutenant govenor, to Jill Long Thompson, a former USDA official who ran for Indiana governor this year.

Speculation now centers on Colorado Rep. John Salazar, a farmer-rancher and Army veteran. “It’s a real long shot,” Salazar told Reuters. All the same, members of the House Agriculture Committee greeted Salazar like a returning hero when he arrived at a hearing on Monday.

In the Washington parlor game of “Who Gets the Job?” some of the people mentioned for secretary are deemed better candidates for other slots — Dallas Tonsager of the Farm Credit Administration as undersecretary for rural development and lawyer Marshall Matz as undersecretary for nutrition. Matz and Tonsager were prominent in seeking rural votes for Obama. And Californians have been consistent in backing Karen Ross for deputy secretary, the No. 2 post.

South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin still draws some attention as a potential nominee. A few congressional staff workers have a theory that Obama eventually will ask the House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson, despite his frequent disavowals. “It will not be me, I can tell you,” Peterson said a couple of weeks ago.

    — Chuck Abbott

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