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Ex-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be Confirmed as Agriculture Secretary

by Countable | 4.24.17

President Donald Trump selected former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who faces a confirmation vote in the Senate Monday. In his statement announcing the choice, Trump said:

"From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land."

Who is Sonny Perdue?

He is a farmer’s son who just turned 70 in December and still lives in Bonaire, GA, the small town where his dad, George Ervin Perdue Jr., and schoolteacher mom, the former Ophie Viola Holt, settled soon after his birth in nearby Perry, GA. They named him George Ervin Perdue III, but everyone pretty soon started calling him Sonny, and the nickname stuck. He is on record as saying that his days working on the family farm laid the foundation for his career as a veterinarian.

But before that, he was a high school quarterback good enough to earn a spot on the University of Georgia’s football team as a walk-on. He soon joined the Air Force, kept up his studies, graduated in 1971 from the school’s College of Veterinary Medicine and was honorably discharged from the service three years later with the rank of captain. He spent three subsequent years developing his veterinary practice in North Carolina but eventually returned to Georgia to open the first of several small businesses, including what would turn into a profitable grain and fertilizer firm.

He entered the political arena in the 1980s as a member of Georgia’s Houston County Planning & Zoning Commission, but his sights were set on the State Capitol in Atlanta, and in 1990 he made his move, winning election to a Senate seat that he would hold for 11 years. Not only was Perdue a Democrat for the first eight of those years, but he was also the majority leader in 1995 and ’96. In ’98, he switched to the GOP, was reelected and became the chamber’s president pro tempore.

By the turn of the century, he had become such a fixture in the state Senate that it was said that only a run for the governorship could dislodge him. And so, in 2003, he became Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. After winning a second term, he stepped down in 2011 and founded Perdue Partners, LLC, an international trading company that specializes in facilitating the export of U.S. goods and services.

He and his wife, the former Mary Ruff, dated for four years before marrying in 1972. They have four adult children, Leigh, Lara, Jim and Dan, and their 14 grandkids include twin girls. Through the years, the couple has also shared their home with a number of foster children.

Perdue is an avid sportsman and flier, so much so that in 2003 he allegedly piloted a state helicopter despite not being licensed to do so. And three years later, while still governor, he played a football coach in the hit movie "We Are Marshall," which was partly filmed in Georgia.

What are his chances of confirmation?

Ultimately, Perdue will likely have a smooth road to confirmation from the Republicans in the Senate, and the reception of a ringing endorsement from Tom Vilsack, who served as USDA chief in the Obama administration, will almost certainly ease the way for Perdue among Senate Democrats, as well.

Perdue’s track record of actual governance would be one of the more substantial in this Cabinet. In fact, he’s as well known on Capitol Hill as the cousin of Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) as he is as the former governor whose strategy for ending a historic drought included leading a public prayer for rain on the steps of the Georgia State House.

It is notable that Perdue supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for president and ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush after Huckabee bowed out but eventually signed on with the Trump team and spent time with the campaign’s agricultural advisory committee.

Still, Perdue’s pro-free trade stance is in sharp opposition to Trump’s – and contrasts by different degrees with two colleagues with whom he’d be working closely, namely Robert Lighthizer, picked to be U.S. Trade Representative, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Perdue’s nomination has also enlivened Big Ag and chemical companies, which see in him a potential ally who just might favor their interests over those of the small farmers that Perdue knows intimately.

But with negotiations on the 2018 Farm Bill, including such emotionally explosive topics as crop payouts and subsidies, soon to take center stage, rural Americans – flexing their newfound political muscle after clearing Trump’s path to the White House and recalling Trump’s saying that Perdue "is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land" – can’t help but see in this farmer’s son a man they expect can be trusted to look out for their interests.

What does the Department of Agriculture do?

The USDA oversees production, education, and research related to farming, agriculture, forestry and food. Its goals include creating and maintaining a model for food production and safety, ensuring animal welfare, meeting the needs of ranchers and farmers, providing nutritional assistance to low-income families and promoting agricultural trade and production.

The department employs 105,778 people and had a Fiscal Year 2015 budget of $139.7 billion. Notably, its Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), providing food-buying assistance to low-income residents, receives 80 percent of that budget.

-- Countable Staff

(Photo Credit: US Embassy Montevideo / Public Domain)

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