A primer on Tom Vilsack, Obama’s choice for ag sec

Vilsack230 Former Iowa Governor Tom J. Vilsack, 58, will be introduced this morning as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.  There are thousands of stories in the Radio Iowa archive about Vilsack.  I'll provide links to some in order to provide a bit of biography and background.

In May of 2004, Radio Iowa ran a nine-part series of stories profiling Vilsack because John Kerry, the presumptive 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was considering Vilsack as a potential running mate.  Here are the segments of that series:

    Tom Vilsack, the accidental politician? –  If you look at Tom Vilsack's resume, it looks like a flow chart that a college professor would use to illustrate how to move up the political ranks. Vilsack was elected his town's mayor three times, then he won a seat in the state legislature which he held for five years. Vilsack followed that with two successful campaigns for governor…

    Vilsack: the state senate years – Tom Vilsack was elected to the state Senate in 1992 and tackled complicated issues, like tinkering with the formula used to calculate how much businesses pay into the state's unemployment compensation fund. Vilsack tried to find some middle ground in the brewing controversy over large-scale livestock operations…

    Vilsack:  the 1998 campaign for governor – 1998 was a big year in Iowa politics. Republican Governor Terry Branstad was not seeking re-election after 16 years in the job. Two democrats launched campaigns for governor — Tom Vilsack and Mark McCormick, a Des Moines attorney who had been a justice on Iowa's Supreme Court. During that campaign, Vilsack cast himself as the champion of the little guy…

    Vilsack:  weathering the storms – In January of 1999, Tom Vilsack was sworn in as Iowa's 40th governor. Republicans Bob Ray and Terry Branstad had been governor for 30 years, and Vilsack offended statehouse Democrats and the state workers union that had backed him when he chose to keep many of the administrators who'd been working for the previous Republican governor…

    Vilsack's brushes with disaster – Once he became governor, it sometimes seemed as if Tom Vilsack might not survive the experience. Early in his first term, Vilsack traveled to the far east on a trade mission, and wound up in the midst of an earthquake in Taiwan. "I had rosary beads next to my bed," Vilsack said. "I grabbed them and I just said a prayer…

    Vilsack:  "I like governing." – …"Do you like campaigning?" Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson asked. Vilsack laughed. "I like governing and I like campaigning in terms of meeting people, going out and talking to folks, shaking hands, visiting with them, finding out what's on their mind," Vilsack replied. "There are other aspects of campaigning that, you know, I could do without."

    Vilsack accomplishments, legacy – Governor Tom Vilsack will leave his mark on Iowa because of two major programs. The first, called Vision Iowa, hands out state grants for construction of major community attractions like the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines and the Mississippi River Museum complex in Dubuque… 

    Vilsack, the speechmaker – …"Many believe that elections are about winning and indeed that is an important aspect of any election, but more fundamental than winning is the fight — what it is that you fight for, who you fight for and what you stand for," Vilsack said during a speech in 2002…

    Vilsack counts labor as an asset – …"It's very helpful that he's a policy wonk because that's what we end up dealing with is policies and how they impact our members and the services we provide," AFSCME Council 61 president Jan Corderman said during an interview with Radio Iowa.

On Thursday, November 9, 2006 — two days after the General Election — Vilsack called a small group of supporters and said he intended to run for president. 

Vilsack officially launched his campaign for the presidency on November 30, 2006.  Here's the Radio Iowa story of Vilsack's announcement speech/event in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.  Here's a series of blog posts about Vilsack's campaign launch. The first has the text of Vilsack's announcement speech.  Here's a Radio Iowa story that previews the Vilsack's potluck kick-off in Mount Pleasant, with a reference to Mrs. Vilsack's cheesy corn casserole.

In early 2007, Vilsack questioned polling data in Iowa which showed him running behind other candidates — namely Obama and Hillary Clinton.  He also took a pot-shot at Obama's "hope" theme during an appearance before the DNC in early February.

Vilsack dropped out on Feb. 23, 2007. That link takes you a blog post which contains the text of Vilsack's remarks that day, plus reaction from other candidates in the race — including Obama. "Tom Vilsack is an outstanding public servant whose initiatives in Iowa on education reform, health care and alternative energy are models from which our entire nation can learn," Obama said back in 2007 in that prepared statement about Vilsack.  "More than that, Tom brings a badly needed sense of honor and decency to our politics, and a passionate advocacy for an end to the war in Iraq.  I hope he will continue to speak out in the months and years to come, as his is an important and valued voice."


On March 26, 2007, Vilsack and his wife, Christie, endorsed Hillary Clinton.  Click here to read the Radio Iowa story and/or listen to the mp3 of the news conference.  Here's a blog post with text of the Q&A with reporters at that event.


Vilsack quickly endorsed Obama on June 1, 2008 (before HRC did) after it became clear Obama had secured the delegates necessary to win the nomination. Click here to read and listen to Vilsack's fiery, pro-Obama speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's state convention in late June. 

In late June, Vilsack publicly made the case for Obama's election.  Click here to listen to the eight-minute-long mp3 or read the text of his remarks. .

Vilsack was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention — a Hillary Clinton delegate

Vilsack's last public in event in Iowa was last week — a news conference urging donations to Iowa Legal Aid's Foundation.

Other Vilsack fun facts: 

Vilsack had nine ten press secretaries during his eight years as governor, one of whom may have bent the ear of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.  Here are their names:

  1. Aida Amoura (a former Omaha TV reporter who, last I knew, had gone to law school a few years back; on-line records indicate she donated $1000 to Hillary Clinton's primary campaign);
  2. Madhu Chugh (she worked on Vilsack's 1998 gubernatorial campaign; left to attend the Kenndy School at Harvard; she's graduated from Yale Law School and clerking for a judge on the DC circuit now);
  3. Joe Shannahan (a long-time Democratic operative in Iowa; currently vice president of Lincoln Strategies);
  4. Ron Parker (another long-time Democratic operative in the state who served as Vilsack's press secretary for his 1998 campaign for governor; Parker is currently the head of the Iowa Senate Democratic Caucus Staff);
  5. John Lapp (manager of Vilsack's 2002 gubernatorial campaign; Lapp went on to head Gephardt's 2004 Iowa Caucus campaign, then left the state to return to DC waters; Lapp was director of independent expenditures for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006; the DCCC was headed by Rahm Emanuel that year — and Emanuel is Obama's pick for White House chief of staff);
  6. Amanda Crumley (she now lives in LA; use that link to see the variety of campaigns she's worked on — most recently the Rod Blogojevich primary campaign);
  7. Rodell Mollineau (currently the communications director for US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid);
  8. Monica Fischer (she left the Iowa Finance Authority, where she was spokeswoman, and returned to that job when Matt Paul returned to the job of press secretary; Gordon Fischer, former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who endorsed Tom Vilsack then Barack Obama, is her husband);
  9. Matt Paul (a former radio reporter; an aide to former Cedar Rapids, Iowa, mayor; a top operative in Howard Dean's 2004 Iowa campaign; currently a consultant with LINKStrategies) and
  10. Jennifer Mullin (currently press secretary for Iowa Senator/Senate Ag Committee chairman Tom Harkin).

Vilsack had four chiefs of staff during his tenure as governor.  The first was John Norris, a long-time Democratic operative in Iowa with a long resume, including work for Kerry '04, Harkin '92 & Jackson '88. Norris' wife, Jackie, will be chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama.

Some of Vilsack's former aides are quibbling among themselves, denying responsibility for the wacky costumes Vilsack wore to "Spring Fling" celebrations at the governor's mansion.  It was Christie Vilsack's idea, as a way of promoting reading among Iowa kids, so my ruling is that none of the staff were responsible.  One year Vilsack dressed as Old King Cole. Another year Vilsack was Winnie, the Pooh.  One wag (not me!) suggests the picture may reappear soon in reference to Vilsack's thoughts on honey subsidies.  UPDATE:  Wonkette!  With the Pooh pic!

Vilsack has taken a lot of part-time jobs since his exit from the governorship.  He works for the Dorsey & Whitney law firm.  He teaches at Drake University's Law School.  He is a consultant to MidAmerican Energy and he was hired to lobby for the National Education Association in Washington.  Tell me if I've missed one.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.