Agribusiness Critics Seek to Head Off Heitkamp’s USDA Prospects

  • Groups cite Heitkamp’s support of fossil fuel interests
  • Some signatories endorse Rep. Marcia Fudge for role instead

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a possible pick to head the Agriculture Department under President-elect Joe Biden, should be ruled out for her ties to agribusiness corporations and fossil fuel interests, more than 150 environmental, social justice, and labor groups said.

The Center for Food Safety, Farmworker Justice, the Humane League and other advocacy organizations called Heitkamp “the wrong choice” for the job in a Tuesday letter to Biden and his transition team.

They point to past contributions to her congressional campaign from the fossil fuel industry and corporate giants, including Cargill Inc., Bayer AG, and Monsanto Co., as problematic.

“We really need somebody at the USDA who is going to represent the best interests of small-scale farmers, family farmers, consumers—and Heidi Heitkamp is not that person,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that also signed the letter.

Heitkamp served as North Dakota’s first woman senator from 2013 to 2019, helping to pass two farm bills as an Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee member. She’s now a founding board member of the One Country Project, which aims to address rural issues.

Photographer: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)

When asked for comment on the organizations’ opposition, a Heitkamp representative pointed to an earlier quote from the former senator responding to speculation about being on the agriculture secretary shortlist: “I will do everything in my power to assist President-Elect Joe Biden in Building Better Back and Restoring the Soul of Our Nation.”

‘A New Vision’

Heitkamp is one of several potential contenders for the spot in Biden’s Cabinet, including former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.). Fudge represents a safe Democratic district. Bustos won her Nov. 3 re-election in a close race against a Republican challenger.

Hurting Farmers Look to Biden’s USDA Pick to Fix Mounting Woes

Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat, was also floated to lead the Agriculture Department under President Donald Trump. The position eventually went to Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia.

The agriculture industry, which has weathered economic blows over recent years from the coronavirus pandemic and trade wars, needs “a new vision,” said Joe Maxwell, a lifelong farmer and president of Family Farm Action.

He called Heitkamp’s policies “worn-out,” adding that trade makes up the bulk of her solution to agriculture issues.

“Farmers don’t export. The largest corporations in the world do,” Maxwell said. “Who’s making the millions while farmers were going bankrupt?”

He and other signatories on the Tuesday letter instead endorsed Fudge, a liberal Democrat and the House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee chairwoman. She often defends federal food assistance and seeks to confront racial injustices in agriculture.

Hamerschlag highlighted Fudge’s pro-environment votes in Congress, which earned her a lifetime score of 93% on the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard. Heitkamp’s score stands at 52%.

Fudge “would be honored to serve” if offered the agriculture secretary post under the Biden administration, said Denise Tolliver, the lawmaker’s communications director.

“How historic it would be to have an African-American woman leading the USDA after such a terrible history of discrimination against Black farmers,” Hamerschlag said. “It would just really show that the Biden administration is determined to right the wrongs of the past.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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