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As inauguration nears, Trump's ag secretary pick still unclear

FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump at a fundraising event in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, May 19, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

There is a dwindling number of days until Donald Trump becomes president—but his nominees to lead two departments, including agriculture, are still a mystery.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was recently spoken of as a frontrunner in national media, dampening speculation that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., will take a role in the administration. But nine weeks after the election, it's hard to say who will take the role.

"You think, he's filled all these other positions, why hasn't he filled ag?" said Ed Schafer, a former North Dakota governor and U.S. agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush. "I don't think it's an issue with the operation of the department, but it's surprising, since he's filled everything else, why hasn't he filled this one?"

It's a question plenty of North Dakota officials are watching. Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said Monday that he finds it remarkable that a number of candidates have been interviewed without a nominee.

"It gets press, the interview goes away, and it goes to the next one," he said on Monday. "It's been hard to sort out if there's a lead (candidate)."

Watne said that he's not too concerned about the vacancy, but he pointed out that the position—and ag policy in general—wasn't discussed very much on the presidential campaign trail, and whoever is picked for the position will be "setting the tone" on a range of issues, from farm policy to food stamps.

Schafer emphasized the significance of the job. He laughed as he said there ought to be a constitutional amendment that only a former governor can take the post, describing the position's daunting complexity and vast array of constituencies.

"It's so varied, you have a million agriculture organizations, lobbyist groups, specific special interest groups—fruits and cotton and beans," he said. "The chicken guys want to have the same advantages as the beef guys."

There's also discussion over the upcoming Farm Bill, and Schafer described the need for a person who "has got the mechanics of getting legislation driven and passed."

Current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was nominated in mid-December 2008, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, and was confirmed by the Senate on the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2009—hours after Obama was inaugurated. He was preceded by Schafer, who was nominated on Halloween 2007 and was confirmed on Jan 28, 2008.

The other secretarial position that still has no nominee is the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Heitkamp was briefly spoken of for the ag secretary position, emerging as a top potential pick in December and netting a face-to-face meeting with the president elect. However, she's since said she'll "likely" stay in the Senate.

Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said there's a political cost to continued delay in filling the agriculture position, adding that he's heard some of his Republican colleagues are hearing from displeased farmers that the spot has not been filled. He suggested that "quarrels" among Trumps agriculture advisers are holding up the process.

"Maybe if Trump was more grounded in ag policy, he'd be more confident in making a pick," Peterson said.

Schafer said that whoever fills the role will be stepping into a big position—one that oversees a wide base of employees and significant spending.

"It's not a small job," he said.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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