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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Bush Makes a Peach of an Appointment

December 25, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — There are several ways to land a Cabinet job: You can be an out-of-work politician. You can give loads of campaign money. You can be a close buddy of the president. You can be the darling of demanding party extremists.

You can also be talented, energetic, knowledgeable, personable--like Ann Veneman of Modesto.

It's why last week, she became the first Californian chosen by President-elect George W. Bush to serve in his Cabinet--and to be the first female U.S. agriculture secretary.

"I was born a poor little peach farmer's daughter," Veneman says, grinning. "I never imagined I would wind up in the Cabinet of the United States. I never thought I'd live in Washington."

Of course, connections also count. So do twists of fate. And it didn't hurt that Veneman was a California campaign co-chair for Bush. But basically this is a tale of competence over cronyism.

For many old-timers in Sacramento, it's also the story of two Venemans--dad Jack and daughter Ann. To have known the late Assemblyman John G. Veneman (R-Modesto) is to more easily understand the future Secretary Veneman, 51.

"My father was not a partisan person," she recalls. "He wanted to make things work better. He had friends on both sides. It was a desire to do the right thing and make good public policy that drove him--rather than what we see today with all this partisan bickering."

She's biased. But she's also dead-on correct.

And, notes former Gov. Pete Wilson, an ex-boss: "She's got a lot of her daddy in her. Smart as a whip. Very conscientious and hard-working, but makes it look easy. Straightforward and gutsy, but not obnoxious. She has great charm."

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Jack Veneman would be on anybody's list of the 10 most respected assemblymen of the last 40 years. He served only seven years--from early 1962 through 1968--but it was during the golden age of the California Legislature when big deeds were done.

Veneman was among a band of moderate "young Turks" who seized control of the GOP caucus from old mossbacks. Others included his Sacramento roommate, Assemblyman Bob Monagan of Tracy--who succeeded Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh as speaker--and Assemblyman Bill Bagley of San Rafael.

Bagley, 72--now a member of the same law firm as Ann Veneman--contends the Veneman political odyssey got its tail wind from a fluke snowstorm.

But first, ambitious Unruh--then a powerful committee chairman--managed to create an unneeded appellate court. He leveraged Gov. Pat Brown into filling the new judgeship with Speaker Ralph Brown (no relation) of Modesto. That allowed Unruh to be elected speaker. And a special election was held to replace Assemblyman Brown.

"It'll snow in Modesto before they elect a Republican there," Pat Brown said confidently. Sure enough, it snowed the day before the special election in January. That depressed Democratic turnout--legend has it--and county Supervisor Veneman was elected to the Assembly by a 4.8% margin.

Monagan, 80, remembers that Unruh was so upset he refused to put Veneman on any committee. Finally, spitefully, he placed him on the lowly Welfare Committee--and Veneman became a welfare expert.

When Richard Nixon was elected president and named Lt. Gov. Robert Finch secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Finch appointed Veneman undersecretary.

Veneman recruited Republican Senate staffer Leon Panetta to be HEW's civil rights director. Panetta insisted on actually enforcing the civil rights laws, so Nixon ordered him fired. Veneman balked.

"Jack always said, 'If you fire him, you're going to have to fire me,' " Panetta recalls. Panetta finally quit, switched parties, won a Monterey congressional seat and later became President Clinton's chief of staff.

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Meanwhile, Ann Veneman had hung up her irrigator boots, stashed her peach-picking shears and gotten a college internship with then-Assemblyman Wilson. Two decades later, Gov. Wilson named her California's first woman agriculture secretary.

In between, Jack Veneman's good friend, Modesto feed dealer Richard E. Lyng, climbed his way up to U.S. agriculture secretary and brought Ann Veneman back to Washington. She served in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, rising to No. 2 in the Ag Department. Her specialty was trade. Also, high-tech ag--and getting action.

"Whatever Bush wants to get done," Panetta says, "He won't have to tell her twice."

It's a small world--big league story. A father-daughter tale about good politics and good government. About good people succeeding.

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