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Colorado Rep. Salazar Likely Obama Choice for USDA Chief

Published on: 08:28AM Dec 04, 2008

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Popular lawmaker is passionate about agriculture

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), 55, who currently represents the Colorado's third district, is under active consideration to be the new USDA Secretary under the incoming Obama administration, according to several sources.

Salazar's agriculture background is significant, having grown up on a cattle ranch, and being an experienced potato seed grower, and a producer of wheat and barley. His home in the San Luis Valley and he is still active on the home farm in Conejos County, and is one of the few farmers serving in the U.S. Congress. His hometown of Manassa is in the San Luis Valley, about 180 miles south of Denver.

If he is picked, the selection would make a lot of sense politically for President-elect Barack Obama in that Salazar is a Hispanic leader, a rancher, a Westerner and someone who passionately loves agriculture, putting the following phrase on his website: "defending rural values." The U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus earlier this week asked Obama to consider Salazar for the post.

Salazar would become the first Hispanic Coloradan to join an administration since former Denver Mayor Federico Pena served as President Bill Clinton’s transportation secretary from 1993 to 1997 and as energy secretary from 1997 to 1998. Gale Norton, who served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of the interior from 2001 to 2006, was the last Coloradan to serve in a Cabinet-level position. If Obama nominates Salazar, he would be the second Hispanic leader nominated for Obama’s Cabinet. Obama announced earlier this week that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will head the Department of Commerce.

Obama will need to work closely with the Blue Dog Democrats in the House on many issues and Salazar is a member of that caucus, a group of conservative House Democrats.

During the 2008 Farm Bill debate, Salazar pushed for fruit and vegetable grower funding, and funding for renewable fuels research.

Salazar said Wednesday that he "may" be in the running. "I am humbled that I may be under consideration as a possible nominee for secretary of agriculture. Should President-elect Obama honor me with a nomination to Agriculture, I would certainly consider it," he said in response to a Denver Post inquiry. "However, at this time, I am continuing my work on behalf of my constituents in the 3rd Congressional District and preparing for the many difficult challenges facing the 111th Congress." Salazar confirmed he has spoken with members of Obama’s transition team but has not yet been interviewed --but that could have occurred late on Wednesday.

Salazar said he has developed a strong interest in the challenges of managing national forests, including the massive beetle kills affecting forests across the West.

In comments to Denver News2, Salazar said, "I love my job and the issues I've been working on. This would give a different opportunity for us where we could serve at a nationwide level, not just represent a district. To me it's always been about representing America, and rural America is a forgotten America."We really need to make sure that rural America is listened to and make sure people realize we have different needs than urban America."

Salazar was recently re-elected to a third term, winning 61 percent of the vote. His younger brother Ken Salazar serves in the U.S. Senate and he served in the state legislature before running for the national seat.

"I think he'd be a terrific secretary of agriculture," the congressman's brother, Ken, said. "He's well-qualified for the job. He learned the agriculture business driving a cultivator on the family farm, not from some book."

During the Democratic convention in Denver this summer, Salazar was among those picked to address the delegates. He criticized the Bush administration for neglecting rural America and said Obama would “work hard on behalf of those who work the land.”

Background: In Congress, Salazar has opposed Canadian beef imports and sponsored a bill to resume sending U.S. beef to Japan. He serves on the House Agriculture Committee. “I’ve lived agriculture and I sleep agriculture,” Salazar said on Wednesday. “I certainly want to make sure that this country continues to be able to produce a safe food supply. It would be a sad day in America if when we ever have to depend on other countries to produce our food.”

Recently, Salazar voted against the bailout of Wall Street firms. He argued that pet projects added to the bill were "irresponsible."

If Salazar is officially selected, as is likely, he would give up his congressional seat, and Colorado Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter would call a special election, spokesman Evan Dreyer said. If a senator leaves office, Ritter can pick a replacement himself.

Meanwhile, another person on the so-called “short list” to head USDA, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said she was not interested in the job.


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.