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Obama taps Vilsack for Agriculture

The former Iowa governor, who supported Clinton, is a backer of renewable energy and ethanol.

December 17, 2008|John McCormick Mike Dorning

CHICAGO AND WASHINGTON — Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who aggressively campaigned for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton before his state's caucuses in January, will be named Agriculture secretary by President-elect Barack Obama, three Democratic officials confirmed Tuesday.

The formal announcement was expected this morning at a news conference in Chicago.

Vilsack declined to comment on the report. "Those questions should be answered by the transition office and the president-elect," he said.

The former two-term Democratic governor has been a supporter of renewable energy and pushed for development of Iowa's ethanol industry. The state is one of the nation's top producers of corn and has a large meat-packing industry.

During the campaign for the Iowa caucuses, Vilsack was the top Clinton official in the state and often appeared with the New York senator. He also frequently questioned Obama's preparedness for the presidency.

But after Obama won the Democratic nomination, Vilsack campaigned for his general election effort in Iowa and other states.

Vilsack would be the fourth high-level appointment of a former presidential campaign rival to Obama's team, following Clinton for secretary of State, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden for vice president and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for Commerce secretary.

"He knows production agriculture, and he knows the changes we need to ensure its profitability and future, including for young and beginning farmers and ranchers," Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.

Iowa's Republican senator also endorsed the selection.

"He has a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy," Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement. "I'm happy for him, happy for Iowa, and this is welcome news for agriculture."

A former mayor and state legislator from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Vilsack campaigned for president himself, but dropped out of the race in February 2007 after just 86 days of campaigning.

While running for president, he took an unusual position for a farm-state official, arguing to cut subsidies for agricultural commodity crops and channel the money toward improving environmental practices. He has argued that agricultural policy should focus on production of renewable energy. He also wrote newspaper articles before the election in support of Obama's energy policies.

In an essay published in October, he urged greater investment in cellulosic ethanol, bio-fuel production plants and wind farms, and advocated "carbon credits" for farmers whose production reduces greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

Some advocates of organic food, meanwhile, have criticized Vilsack as being too supportive of biotechnology company efforts to market genetically modified foods.

In 1998, Vilsack was elected Iowa's first Democratic governor in 32 years. He won reelection in 2002 but did not run a third time, keeping a term-limit promise he had made.

A native of Pittsburgh, he was one of three finalists to be Sen. John F. Kerry's running mate in 2004.

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mccormickj@tribune.com

mdorning@tribune.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Thomas James Vilsack

Age: 58; born Dec. 13, 1950

Experience: Iowa governor, 1998-2006; state senator, 1992-1998; mayor, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 1987-1992

Education: Bachelor's degree, Hamilton College, 1972; law degree, Albany Law School, 1975

Family: Married, two adult sons

Source: Associated Press

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