Key aide's departure weakens California's clout at USDA

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Karen Ross's departure for California's leading farm job will leave the nation's biggest farm state scrambling for a new Agriculture Department champion at a very delicate time.

Ross's current position as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's chief of staff has made her the best-placed Californian at the $140 billion-a-year department. That means her new appointment to head the California Department of Food and Agriculture is a mixed blessing for the state's farmers and lawmakers.

"It's an incredible opportunity for her," Dan Haley, a lobbyist for California raisins, dates, walnuts and other crops, said Thursday, "but suffice it to say, it's a deep hole for California agriculture here."

Of 33 top Agriculture Department administrators reviewed Thursday, only four had some discernible California background. Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Rayne Pegg, for instance, formerly worked for the state farm bureau.

In other cases, the Golden State connection is more remote. Agricultural Research Service Administrator Edward Knipling, for instance, ran a Fresno-based research lab from 1978 to 1982.

Gov. Jerry Brown announced Ross's appointment on Wednesday. In Sacramento, the position requires state Senate confirmation. In Washington, the fallout could be aggravated by other California power losses.

During writing of the last farm bill, for instance, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, chaired the House subcommittee that steered hundreds of millions of dollars to specialty crops. California profited.

Now, the newly renamed House nutrition and horticulture subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio. Her perspective is bound to differ. Ohio produced about $268 million worth of vegetables, nuts and berries in 2007, while California cranked out about $16 billion worth of vegetables, nuts and berries.

The next farm bill is due in 2012. Republicans controlling the House say they want to roll back most federal spending, including farm spending, to 2008 levels.

Californians haven't yet rallied around a new consensus Agriculture Department leadership candidate to help fill the gap left by Ross's departure. In 2008 and 2009, by contrast, California farm organizations and lawmakers had united behind Ross as a consensus candidate for an Obama administration appointment.

"California has always fought to get a cabinet position or, as a consolation prize, to get the deputy position," noted Scott Nishioki, chief of staff for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Obama, though, chose the Iowa resident Vilsack and Massachusetts resident Kathleen Merrigan for the secretary and deputy secretary slots. Vilsack brought Ross back as an adviser and then, starting last January, as his chief of staff.

The job put Ross in a second-floor office next to Vilsack's and gave her day-to-day say over managing the department's 110,000 employees. When former California Department of Food and Agriculture chief A.G. Kawamura visited Washington, he would dine with her. California lawmakers never hesitated to call.

The position also, at times, put her in awkward spots.

Ross, for instance, was brought into the loop last year when a deceptively edited videotape initially made it appear Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod had made anti-white racist remarks. One July 2010 department e-mail, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by multiple media organizations, advised Ross that "this is horrible!"

The e-mail chain, though, also shows Ross raised at least one cautionary note before the department took action, asking whether Sherrod had had a chance to explain her side of the story. Ross was not directly involved in forcing Sherrod's resignation, the e-mails indicate.

Ross could not be reached to comment Thursday.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service