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Thomas J. Vilsack

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Thomas J. Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
30th United States Secretary of Agriculture
Assumed office
January 21, 2009
President Barack Obama
Deputy Kathleen Merrigan
Preceded by Ed Schafer
40th Governor of Iowa
In office
January 15, 1999 – January 12, 2007
Lieutenant Sally Pederson
Preceded by Terry Branstad
Succeeded by Chet Culver
Personal details
Born (1950-12-13) December 13, 1950 (age 63)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Christie Bell
Children 2
Alma mater Hamilton College, New York
Albany Law School
Religion Roman Catholicism

Thomas James "Tom" Vilsack (/ˈvɪlsæk/; born December 13, 1950) is an American politician who has served as the United States Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. A member of the Democratic Party, Vilsack served as the 40th Governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007.

On November 30, 2006, he formally launched his candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States in the 2008 election, but ended his bid on February 23, 2007.[1]

Barack Obama announced Vilsack's selection to be Secretary of Agriculture under his administration on December 17, 2008. Vilsack's nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate by unanimous consent on January 20, 2009.

Early life, education and career

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tom Vilsack was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage. He was adopted in 1951 by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. Bud Vilsack was a real-estate agent and insurance salesman, and Dolly was a homemaker.

Vilsack attended Shady Side Academy, a preparatory high school in Pittsburgh. He received a bachelor's degree in 1972 from Hamilton College in New York. While at Hamilton he joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. He received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) in 1975 from Albany Law School. He and his wife settled in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1975.[2]

Early political career

Vilsack was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant in 1987.[2] He was elected to the Iowa Senate in 1992.[2] Following his election, he worked on legislation requiring companies who received state tax incentives to provide better pay and benefits. He helped pass a law for workers to receive health coverage when changing jobs, and helped re-design Iowa's Workforce Development Department. He also wrote a bill to have the State of Iowa assume a 50% share of local county mental health costs.

Governor of Iowa

In 1998, Terry Branstad chose not to seek re-election following sixteen consecutive years as governor. The Iowa Republican Party nominated Jim Ross Lightfoot, a recent former US Representative. Lightfoot became the odds-on favorite to succeed Branstad. Vilsack defeated former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick in the Democratic primary. Vilsack chose Sally Pederson as his running mate. Vilsack narrowly won the general election and became the first Democrat to serve as governor of Iowa in 30 years and only the fifth Democrat to hold the office in the 20th century.

In 2002 he won his second term in office by defeating Republican challenger attorney Doug Gross by eight points.

The first year of his second term saw creation of the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a $503 million appropriation designed to boost the Iowa economy by offering grants to corporations and initiatives pledged to create higher-income jobs. Vilsack used a line-item veto, later ruled unconstitutional by the Iowa Supreme Court, to pass the fund, vetoing portions of the bill that would have cut income taxes and eased business regulations. After a special session of the Iowa General Assembly on September 7, 2004, $100 million in state money was set aside to honor previously made commitments. The Grow Iowa Values Fund was reinstated at the end of the 2005 session: under the current law, $50 million per year will be set aside over the next ten years.

Candidates seeking to replace Vilsack, most notably Des Moines politician Ed Fallon, criticized this program.[3] Their complaints include the fact that companies lured into Iowa by the fund, unlike Iowa-based corporations, can be lured away by greater cash incentives elsewhere. Another criticism is that it does nothing to promote new business.[4]

In July 2005, Vilsack signed an executive order allowing all felons who had served their sentences to vote again. Iowa law previously held that convicted felons are permanently disenfranchized unless voting rights were restored personally by the governor; Vilsack did away with this process.[5] For most of Vilsack's tenure as Governor, Republicans held effective majorities in the Iowa General Assembly. Following the November 2, 2004, elections, the fifty-member Senate was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and Republicans held a 51–49 majority in the House of Representatives.

During the 2005 legislative session, Vilsack signed into law greater restrictions that require products containing the active ingredient pseudoephedrine to be sold behind pharmacy counters, as opposed to open-access at open-shelf level. Those wishing to buy such products must show identification and sign a log book. The new law, designed to reduce methamphetamine use in Iowa, took effect on May 21, 2005.

Following Kelo v. City of New London, Vilsack vetoed but was overridden on Iowa House file 2351, a bill to restrict Iowa's use of eminent domain.

Vilsack is a former member of the National Governors Association Executive Committee. He was chair of the Democratic Governors Association in 2004. He was also chair of the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, the Governors Ethanol Coalition, and the Midwest Governors Conference, and has also been chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association's committee on Natural Resources, where he worked to develop the NGA's farm and energy policies.[6]

Prior to Democratic Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry's selection of Senator John Edwards, Vilsack was thought to be high on the list of potential running mates for Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. In 2005, Vilsack established Heartland PAC, a political action committee aimed at electing Democratic Governors. In the first report, he raised over half a million dollars. Vilsack left office in 2007; he did not seek a third term and was succeeded by Chet Culver.

2008 U.S. presidential campaign

On November 30, 2006, Tom Vilsack became the second Democrat (after Mike Gravel) to officially announce intentions to run for the presidency in the 2008 election. In his announcement speech, he said "America's a great country, and now I have the opportunity to begin the process, the legal process of filing papers to run for President of the United States." Vilsack dropped out of the race on February 23, 2007 citing monetary constraints.[7]

Vilsack's campaign made significant use of social media by maintaining an active MySpace profile, a collection of viral video clips on YouTube, a Facebook profile, videoblog on,[8] and a conference call with the podcast site TalkShoe.[9] On January 27, 2007, Vilsack called into the Regular Guys Show hosted by Kurt Hurner to conduct a 15‑minute interview on his running for the Democratic nomination for 2008. Since then, Vilsack appeared again on the show, now The Kurt Hurner Show at Talk Shoe on August 12, 2008, this time as a supporter of Barack Obama for president taking questions from callers to the program for 30 minutes.

During the campaign, Vilsack joined fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in supporting the establishment of a U.S. Public Service Academy as a civilian counterpart to the military academies.[10]

Shortly after ending his 2008 bid for the White House, Vilsack endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and was named the national co-chair for Clinton's presidential campaign.[11]

Views on Iraq

Vilsack's stance on the war was critical of President Bush but hesitant to call for an immediate and complete pullout from Iraq: "I don't think we're losing in Iraq, It appears to be a draw. People are upset by the fact that their kids are over there and there doesn’t seem to be any end to this whole process. It’s not pacifism that makes people think this way. They’re questioning the credibility and competence of the Commander-in-Chief."[12]

On December 5, Vilsack announced that he favored withdrawing most of the U.S. forces from Iraq and leaving a small force in the northern region for a limited period. While acknowledging that a withdrawal would lead to more violence, he felt that it would be the only way for the Iraqi government to take control of their country.[13]

Views on energy security

The Vilsack Energy Security Agenda set out a strategy to dramatically reduce U.S. reliance on foreign energy and to cut the United States' carbon emissions. It also called for replacing the Department of Energy with a new Department of Energy Security, to oversee and redefine the federal government’s role in energy policy. The reorganized department would have acted as an institutional advocate for innovation in energy policy, and was intended to ensure accountability as the nation works towards achieving its energy security goals. Through this new department, America’s overriding objective in energy policy would have been to make America the unquestioned leader in clean energy, enhancing national security and economic strength.[14]

In a 2007 lecture to the Commonwealth Club of California, Vilsack stated, Template:Cquote

Secretary of Agriculture

On December 17, 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama announced his choice of Vilsack as the nominee to be the 30th Secretary of Agriculture.[15] Vilsack has governed a largely agricultural state as did the previous two Secretaries of Agriculture, Mike Johanns (who is currently the junior United States Senator from Nebraska) (2005–2007) and Ed Schafer (2007–2009).

The Senate confirmed Vilsack's nomination for the position by unanimous consent on January 20, 2009.[16]

Reaction to Vilsack's nomination from agricultural groups was largely positive and included endorsements from the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund.[17] Opposition to the nomination came from the Organic Consumers Association, which outlined in a November 2008 report several reasons why it believed Vilsack would be a poor choice for the position, particularly as energy and environmental reforms were a key point of the Obama campaign.[18] Among those reasons the report cites: Vilsack has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for large industrial farms and genetically modified crops;[19] as Iowa state governor, he originated the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, effectively blocking local communities from regulating where genetically engineered crops would be grown; additionally, Vilsack was the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership, and was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry lobbying group.[20]

Vilsack appointed Shirley Sherrod as the Georgia Director of Rural Development, saying that she would be an "important advocate on behalf of rural communities."[21] Months after the appointment, Vilsack forced her to resign based on accusations of considering race in the handling of her job responsibilities at a private advocacy firm in 1986.[22] Subsequent reports claim that he overreacted to a video segment taken out of context, and the secretary expressed his "deep regret" to Sherrod in acting hastily.[23] Vilsack was also a prime mover in enabling the "Pigford" scandal, a massive fraud involving billions in payouts to minority supplicants who falsely claimed Agriculture department bias in the awarding of farm loans.[24]

Vilsack approved a 15-cent per tree tax on Christmas tree sellers, as a result of over 3-years of lobbying from the Christmas tree industry. The Christmas tree tax is expected to raise approximately $4 million from holiday revelers. The purpose of the tax is to fund an advertising program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoting the sale of real Christmas trees.

On January 24, 2012, Secretary Vilsack was named the designated survivor by President Obama during the President's State of the Union address.[25]

On March 28, 2012, Vilsack came out publicly defending the use of "lean finely textured beef" added in ground beef.[26]

Electoral history

  • 1998 election for Governor of Iowa:
Democratic Primary[27]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 51.2%
  • Mark McCormick (D), 48.5%
1998 General Election:[28]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 52.3% – 500,231 votes
  • Jim Lightfoot (R), 46.5% – 444,787 votes

Personal life

Vilsack met his wife, Ann Christine "Christie" Bell, in a cafeteria while at college in New York in October 1968. Vilsack approached Bell and asked, "Are you a Humphrey or a Nixon supporter?" She replied "Humphrey" and they soon began dating. The couple was married on August 18, 1973, in Bell's hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Vilsack and his wife moved to Mount Pleasant in 1975, where he joined his father-in-law in law practice.[2]

Tom and Christie Vilsack have two sons, Jess and Doug. Jess graduated from Hamilton College in 2000 where he, like his father, was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. Jess received a J.D. from the University of Iowa in May 2003. Doug later graduated from Colorado College and is currently attending the University of Colorado School of Law. He is also a research associate at the School of Law's Energy and Environmental Security Initiative (EESI).

On May 1, 2006, it was announced that Vilsack joined the Board of Directors of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Learning, a leading publisher of research-based math curricula for middle school, high school, and postsecondary students.[29]


External links

  • United States Department of Agriculture
  • National Governors Association
  • On the Issues
  • Financial information at the National Institute for Money
  • C-SPAN programs
  • Internet Movie Database
  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Charlie Rose
  • WorldCat catalog)
  • The Mac Weekly, November 7, 2008
  • The Des Moines Register, December 16, 2008
Political offices
Preceded by
Terry Branstad
Governor of Iowa
Succeeded by
Chet Culver
Preceded by
Ed Schafer
United States Secretary of Agriculture
Party political offices
Preceded by
Evan Bayh
Chairperson of the Democratic Leadership Council
Succeeded by
Harold Ford
United States order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Sally Jewell
as Secretary of the Interior
Order of Precedence of the United States
Secretary of Agriculture
Succeeded by
Penny Pritzker
as Secretary of Commerce
United States presidential line of succession
Preceded by
Eric Holder
as Attorney General
8th in line
Secretary of Agriculture
Succeeded by
Penny Pritzker
as Secretary of Commerce

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