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Ag secretaries step away from U.S. Senate

By Ken Root

This week we have seen a former and a sitting U.S. Secretary of Agriculture make decisions regarding holding the office of U.S. Senator. Mike Johanns, former governor of Nebraska, who served as agriculture secretary in the George W. Bush administration, says he will not run for a second Senate term in 2014. Tom Vilsack, who is a former governor of Iowa, says he will continue as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and not run for the seat that will open up when longtime Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin retires in 2014. These two decisions reinforce my belief in the integrity of both men but make me wonder what the U.S. Senate has become that it can't recruit or keep good farm state lawmakers.

Johanns has been in public office for 32 years and is now 62 years old. In his announcement, he gave the indication that he and his wife want "quieter times." That may be enough to satisfy some but Johanns had just started his climb through the ranks of a body that may not give you much seniority for 20 years. Being a senator is almost like being the Pope; you are expected to die in office. Of course, that stigma was stood on its head this month by Pope Benedict the 16th as he will be the first Pope to willingly step down in 600 years. The greater part of valor may be to know when to quit the fight, or not enter the fray, rather than be placed in an unworkable situation for the rest of one's earthly existence.

I have covered the public lives of both Johanns and Vilsack for many years and find them to be very different in their politics but very similar in their intellect, political savvy and dogged determination. Mike Johanns came on the national scene by resigning in his second term as governor of Nebraska when President Bush needed a new agriculture secretary. He never gave any public indication he was hesitant to take the job or to serve in a very demanding role. He traveled worldwide as an ambassador for American agriculture. He sat quietly in sale rings and small-town gymnasiums and took in the comments of hundreds of citizens at his many farm bill listening sessions. His team wrote a farm bill that Congress disdained because it had come from the administration. He stepped out of office when the Senate seat in Nebraska opened up and campaigned actively to win it. In 2008, he was going against the grain of voters who were favoring Democrats but he was elected and became a conservative voice of reason within the deliberative body.

Vilsack was Iowa's governor when I first began to interview him. He had about as much charm as a pipe wrench but we both kept working toward a time that I could ask questions he felt were worthy of his answer. He stopped saying: "The question you should be asking..." and put a little more polish on his answers. In 2006, he stepped out of state office and began a campaign for president. That shocked a lot of Iowans as you are never a prophet in your own land. When his candidacy faltered, he backed Hillary Clinton. When Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Vilsack wasn't holding too many good cards. He enlisted the help of Sen. Tom Harkin and settled for secretary of agriculture. In Obama's first term, Vilsack distinguished himself as one of the most level-headed administrators in the cabinet. He took heat he shouldn't have taken and carried the banner for the administration.

Vilsack also learned the ways of USDA. He studied hard to master every issue while directing a huge and unwieldy department. He has become so competent that Republicans and Democrats alike are complimentary of his administrative skills and his public presence in support of farmers, agribusiness and biofuels.

Timing is everything and this man, at age 62, could have had the Iowa U.S. Senate seat laid in his lap. Polls showed him to be the most known and favored person for the job. The seat is held by his party and he knows Iowa and national politics as well as anyone, other than Iowa's senior senator, Charles Grassley.

For Vilsack to say "No" to a run for U.S. Senate and Johanns to say "Enough" tells me that the satisfaction of serving in the body is very low. Two well-grounded men from different parties both reaching the same conclusion says the Senate is less relevant than other endeavors.

Vilsack can be a strong force in the administration if budget cutting is the order of the next three years. He seems to relish the idea of streamlining the USDA. He could cut 20,000 jobs out of the agency by some estimates and keep the core functions intact. In direct questions to many of his predecessors, the have said how much the agency needs to be realigned but that they had no interest in being the leader who took on the task.

For Sen. Johanns, I send my thanks and best wishes for his "retirement" and hope there are no health issues for him or his wife and that their service to the people of the Midwest continues in whatever capacity they choose.

For Secretary Vilsack, I think he is on a roll at USDA and will leave a legacy that will be stellar. At the end of the Obama presidency, he will be a very attractive candidate for corporate boards, a university presidency or ambassadorship.

Now we have to find people to fill two critical Midwest Senate seats that understand and appreciate agriculture, business and economic development and will bring the body back to dignified debate and compromise, rather than being a political mud pit.

Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at

Date: 2/25/2013


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