The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary, sending the former Iowa governor to the same Cabinet position he served for the entirety of the Obama administration.
The vote was 92-7.
Vilsack, 70, will now be tasked with helping farmers hard hit by former president Donald Trump’s trade wars and the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened thousands of workers at meatpacking plants and deepened the challenges of hunger and food insecurity.
During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Vilsack made clear the challenges facing the Department of Agriculture are different than 12 years ago.
“The world and our nation are different today than when I served as agriculture secretary in a previous administration,” Vilsack said. “Today, the pandemic, racial justice and equity and climate change must be our priorities.”
Biden announced the pick in December, praising Vilsack for his effort implementing the Recovery Act after the Great Recession, expanding markets for farmers, improving food safety standards and helping “millions of children and families receive health meals.” Former President Barack Obama also picked Vilsack to address the scourge of heroin and other opiate use in rural communities.
Biden called him, “The best secretary of agriculture I believe this country has ever had.”
Vilsack will have to overcome the wariness of progressive groups that have asserted that Vilsack is too close with agricultural corporations. Vilsack also encountered opposition from civil rights groups, who criticized his firing of Shirley Sherrod, a Black agriculture department official, over a decade ago after Breitbart published a misleading video clip that falsely suggested she was racist. (Vilsack apologized and attempted to hire her back).
Vilsack will be pressed to address the needs of rural communities who overwhelmingly supported Trump over Biden and are worried about Democrats passing new regulations.
Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders joined six Republicans in voting against the nomination.
“I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture,” Sanders told reporters. “I think he’ll be fine, but not as strong as I would like.”
Vilsack and his wife Christie endorsed Biden during the Iowa caucuses and campaigned aggressively for him. Biden finished fourth place, which at the time he called “a gut punch,” but repeatedly expressed his gratitude to the Vilsacks for their support.
In 1998, Vilsack became the first Democrat elected governor of Iowa in more than 30 years. He served as governor from 1999 to 2007 and chaired the Democratic Governors Association for a year. In 2009, the Senate unanimously confirmed Vilsack to be agriculture secretary.
After stepping down in 2017, Vilsack became the president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. Last year, he won a $150,000 Powerball prize in the Iowa Lottery.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.