After weeks of speculation, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue was selected to serve as President-elect Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, according to an official knowledgeable of the nomination but not authorized to speak publicly.
Some agriculture leaders see Perdue, who grew up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine, as a strong supporter of farmers and ranchers who understands the issues facing rural America. But his selection was immediately met with criticism from others.
“We are concerned that Perdue will use his position at the USDA to prioritize the profits of big agribusiness and trade over the interests of American farmers, workers and consumers,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth.
Perdue was one of several candidates interviewed, including former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado and a trio of Texans – the state’s agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and former Texas A&M President Elsa Murano. Trump’s selection of Perdue as his final secretary means his Cabinet will lack a Latino member.
Reached Wednesday, Miller said he hasn't heard from Trump or his aides. But that if he was passed up, Perdue would be the best choice. “He's a good one,” he said. “I think he's a great choice.”
A spokesman for Perdue declined an interview request. But Perdue’s cousin, Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, described him as the best person for the job. “I am confident Sonny will work hard to advance smart agriculture policies that will help our farmers, ranchers and rural communities across the country,” he said.
Perdue, 70, was first invited to meet with Trump a few weeks after the election.
“He asked me what my skills sets were and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a business person and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally, and he lit up,” he told reporters at Trump Tower in November. “He knew what it takes to make America great again by doing the things we do well, which is agriculture for one and to free up farmers from the regulations that we see. He was spot on on those issues.”
Perdue was born in Perry, Ga. to a farmer father and a school teacher mother. He attended Warner Robins High School and later earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 1971.
After serving as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force, Perdue became a successful small business owner, starting several agriculture and transportation-based enterprises.
In the 1980s, he served on the Houston County Planning and Zoning Board before winning a seat in the Georgia State Senate as a Democrat in 1990. While serving as Senate President Pro-tempore, Perdue switched parties and became a Republican in 1998.
''I expect I'll be treated like a defecting North Korean general, vilified by some and welcomed as the hero by others,'' Perdue told The Macon Telegraph at the time.
Perdue served his Middle Georgia district for 11 years, before leaving in 2001 to launch his gubernatorial campaign. In 2002, Perdue defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in a major upset to become Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 1872.
In 2006, Perdue defeated Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mark Taylor to win re-election.
In a March 2008 report, The Pew Center on the States and GOVERNING Magazine rated Georgia as one of the nation’s best managed states, giving it an overall grade of B+. The report noted improvements made by the “Governor’s Commission for a New Georgia,” which Perdue launched in 2003.
“In 2003, when Governor Sonny Perdue decided to set up his Commission for a New Georgia, it sounded like a recipe for one more unread manifesto doomed to gather more dust than interest. But the Governor meant business,” said the report. “He ultimately pressed into service more than 300 private-sector representatives, promising to do everything possible to implement their recommendations. And since its creation, the commission has been slowly, quietly and deliberately infiltrating Georgia state government with best practices from private industry.”
In 2010, Perdue was one of eight lawmakers – and the only governor - recognized as “Public Officials of the Year” by GOVERNING Magazine for their efforts to reform and cut government bureaucracy.
In a statement, GOVERNING Magazine said Perdue “used his business-savvy leadership skills to turn Georgia into one of the best managed states in the country and confronted two of the most difficult challenges facing Georgia – shepherding landmark transportation funding and water conservation bills through the legislature—while keeping the state’s fiscal house in order.”
Vera Bergengruen and Alex Daugherty contributed.