Politics & Government

So far, no Californians named to USDA posts

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has all but bypassed California in Agriculture Department appointments even though the state leads all others in farm production.

In a remarkable shutout, none of President Barack Obama's 13 Agriculture Department nominees requiring Senate confirmation come from California. At lower levels, too, the state with $36 billion in annual farm production seems shortchanged.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has named some 41 staffers who do not need Senate confirmation. Only two appear to have any California roots, a review of nomination documents show.

"I think Mr. Vilsack is a great guy, but I'm very disappointed we don't have more Californians in the administration," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Merced Democrat and member of the House Agriculture Committee.

The Agriculture Department's non-California cast was on display Thursday, as the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee conducted a confirmation hearing for four department nominees. The latest nominees will handle key areas including rural development, research and education.

None of the four considered Thursday comes from California, although assistant secretary nominee Pearlie Reed, an Arkansas native, did work for a few years as a state conservationist in California.

"It's the first time in a long time we've had no representation at the top," Cardoza said.

An Agriculture Department spokesman could not be reached by telephone or e-mail to comment Thursday.

An unwritten tradition that a Californian hold either the No. 1 or No. 2 position at the Agriculture Department prevailed for a number of years. This culminated during President George W. Bush's first term, when Modesto native Ann Veneman served as the first female secretary of agriculture. She had previously served Bush's father as the first female deputy secretary of agriculture.

Sacramento Valley farmer Richard Rominger served as deputy agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration between 1993 and 2001.

A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Cardoza had joined other Californians in urging Obama and Vilsack to hire Golden State natives. Many of the state's farm groups united behind California Association of Winegrape Growers president Karen Ross as a candidate to be deputy agriculture secretary. The names of other potential candidates have been floated for myriad other positions.

Some states have fared particularly well, especially Vilsack's former home state of Iowa. So far, California's primary representation seems to come from the appointment of UCLA graduate and Southern California native Jay Jensen to deputy undersecretary overseeing the Forest Service. Most recently, Jensen has worked out of Colorado.

A University of California at Riverside graduate, Carol Clifford, is an adviser on labor issues. Clifford has worked for many years out of the Washington, D.C., area

"At the highest levels of USDA, California has come up with a big egg," said California farm lobbyist Dan Haley. "We look at this as a total whiff."

Strictly in terms of political patronage and payback, some consider this ironic. California politicians frequently complained the Bush administration ignored their state because it voted so reliably Democratic. Now, that same Democratic reliability gives the Obama administration little political reason to curry favor through appointments.

Haley noted that some Agriculture Department positions still remain open, including the position he formerly held as head of the Agricultural Marketing Service. He stressed, as well, that geographic familiarity doesn't necessarily translate into policy inclination -- and that, sometimes, political appointees will go out of their way to assist a region outside of their own.