Ohio Rep. Fudge, supporters eye Agriculture secretary post

Supporters urge Biden to pick first Black woman to lead USDA

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said in an 13 interview with Cleveland.com that she would focus on issues like clean water and ways agriculture can help address climate change. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said in an 13 interview with Cleveland.com that she would focus on issues like clean water and ways agriculture can help address climate change. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 25, 2020 at 9:11am

Unions, anti-hunger groups and advocacy groups have launched a letter-writing campaign to support Rep. Marcia L. Fudge for the post of Agriculture secretary in the Biden administration.

Fudge, D-Ohio, was considered a likely contender for the top spot on the House Agriculture Committee after Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., lost his reelection bid on Nov. 3. But now the six-term lawmaker’s attention is on the post of secretary. She and her staff have not commented on the committee post, remaining silent even as Reps. David Scott, D-Ga., and Jim Costa, D-Calif., declared their candidacies.

[Scott, Costa make bids for Agriculture chairmanship]

If Fudge is nominated — and confirmed — she would be only the second African American and the first Black woman to lead a department responsible for agriculture, conservation, school meals, food stamps, rural development and agricultural research. Michael Espy, a House Democrat from Mississippi, made history in 1993 as the first African American to become Agriculture secretary.

Denise Tolliver, Fudge’s communications director, said in an email Tuesday that her boss is interested in serving as secretary if asked to do so.

Other names mentioned as potential Agriculture secretary candidates include Heidi Heitkamp, a former North Dakota Democratic senator and Senate Agriculture Committee member, and Russell Redding, Pennsylvania's state agriculture secretary.

In a Nov. 13 interview with Cleveland.com, Fudge said as Agriculture secretary she would review the effectiveness of the department’s many programs and the use of taxpayer money. She would focus on issues like clean water and ways agriculture can help address climate change, she said.

As chairwoman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, Fudge has blasted Secretary Sonny Perdue for proposed rules to tighten Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility, work requirements and formulas for monthly benefits in ways that could push people out of the program. Fudge also sits on the Education and Labor Committee and the House Administration Committee, where she is chairwoman of the Elections Subcommittee.

Fudge told Cleveland.com that her oversight of the nearly $70 billion program and other nutrition programs means she reviews more than half the Agriculture Department’s budget. 

Food banks in Ohio and Oregon organized a Nov. 23 letter to the Biden transition team from about 60 anti-hunger groups in more than a dozen states backing Fudge for the Agriculture Department post.

“As advocates who work with people experiencing the increased food insecurity that COVID-19 and related economic impacts have brought to communities across the United States, we back the compassionate leadership of Rep. Fudge and believe that she would make essential contributions to the Biden-Harris Administration on these issues,” the groups wrote.

Fudge has opposed waivers issued to meat and poultry plants by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service allowing them to speed up the pace at which carcasses move past federal inspectors and line workers. She and other opponents say the waivers make it more difficult to monitor the carcasses for food safety and increase the risk of injury for workers on the slaughter lines as they try to keep up.

Three unions — the American Federation of Teachers; the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — cited Fudge’s support for workers in general and especially those in gritty and dangerous jobs as strong qualifications for leading the department.

“Rep. Fudge is an advocate for all workers, including the meat processing workers who have kept our nation fed during the pandemic and would be under her jurisdiction at the USDA,” the unions said in a Nov. 21 joint letter. “She is one of those rare people who can look at a complicated issue, quickly grasp the facts and the dynamics, and offer a solution.” 

Shortly after the presidential election, 50 groups representing small farmers, animal protection and welfare advocates, environmentalists and food safety activists banded together in a letter for Fudge.

“She has long been an ally to farmers, food-chain workers, consumers, and rural communities. She is best positioned to help the Department navigate today’s unprecedented challenges — from the ongoing rural crisis, to climate change, to the pandemic’s rupturing of our food system,” the organizations said.

"As the first Black woman to serve as Agriculture Secretary, Congresswoman Fudge would address the Department’s legacy of discrimination against Black and other historically-underserved farmers, and ensure these groups have full access to USDA programs and resources,” the letter said.