Speculation swirls around candidates for USDA posts

Speculation on who might fill USDA subcabinet posts is intensifying on Capitol Hill and among lobbyists, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would not discuss any personnel matters until they are announced.

After being sworn into office by Vice President Joe Biden, Vilsack told reporters in his office at USDA that he and his staff "are going to take our time" in selecting appointees. Vilsack said he thinks "it's unfortunate there are those who would speculate on [who is going to hold] positions."

The names of three Vilsack aides have been posted on a chart of top personnel in the entrance to the USDA administration building.

They are John Norris, a former Iowa Democratic Party leader and chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board, as chief of staff; Carole Jett, a former Natural Resources and Conservation Service official who retired and contributed money and time to the Obama campaign, as deputy chief of staff; and David Lazarus, a former aide to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and key Obama rural campaign director, as special assistant.

Meanwhile, a House Agriculture Committee member and a key Senate aide said they believe Chuck Hassebrook, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs, is a top candidate for deputy secretary.

Other Capitol Hill sources said a Hassebrook nomination would be highly controversial and might not make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee because he has been such a strong critic of farm programs. Hassebrook is an advocate of strict farm program payment limits and favors more spending on nonagricultural rural development.

Other candidates for deputy secretary are Karen Ross, president of the California Winegrape Growers Association and executive director of the Winegrape Growers of America, and Jim Miller, chief of staff and chief economist at the National Farmers Union who was a top aide to Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., during the 2008 farm bill debate.

Before working in Washington, Miller farmed in eastern Washington state and served as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Vilsack said that on his first full day on the job Thursday he will hold a meeting on civil rights problems at USDA.

Vilsack also said he will follow instructions in a memo issued by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel Tuesday to review rules and regulations issued in the last weeks of the Bush administration. But Vilsack declined to address any details of that review.

The secretary said Obama has stressed to him that USDA should provide more nutritious food to children, but that he was also quite adamant that USDA should help increase the supply of alternative fuel and energy.

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