Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday named Washington lawyer and former Bush Administration agriculture official Ann M. Veneman as his agriculture secretary, making her the first non-farmer since the Jerry Brown Administration to head the agency.
Veneman, 45, a native Californian who grew up on a Modesto peach farm, would be the first woman to hold the $109,603-a-year post since Brown named Rose Bird to the post--although in Bird's time the agency had non-agricultural responsibilities. Veneman was a Wilson office intern when the governor was an assemblyman in 1969. In making the choice, Wilson bypassed California farmers who were candidates.
The appointment came as a surprise to state lawmakers. But the choice may help Wilson as he runs for President, given that Veneman works at the influential Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, well-known for its lobbying.
Before joining the law firm, Veneman was undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President George Bush, and before that, was in charge of international trade for the department. While Veneman grew up on a farm, she has never been a farmer as an adult.
"Ann's experience in agriculture and international trade issues makes her uniquely suited to run California's agriculture department," Wilson said in a statement.
During the Bush years, Veneman worked on agricultural components of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is expected to particularly benefit large farms, especially in California. After the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Veneman worked to fund an urban garden program.
In a telephone interview, Veneman, who intends to be on the job by June 1, said that, while she will have a "learning curve," she knows many people in California farming. "I think we will have an excellent working relationship," she said.
"I've been around California agriculture for virtually all my adult life," Veneman said, adding that "the fact that I have that (Washington) background gives (Wilson) access to someone with a broader agriculture perspective."
If confirmed by the state Senate, Veneman would replace Henry J. Voss, a lifelong farmer who resigned earlier this month after it was revealed that he failed to properly disclose $420,000 in outside farm income on his annual conflict-of-interest statements.
Veneman is the daughter of the late John G. (Jack) Veneman, a well-liked, moderate Republican assemblyman from Modesto who served in the 1960s when Wilson was in the lower house. John Veneman also was undersecretary of health, education and welfare during the Nixon Administration. The elder Veneman, who died in 1982, sold the family farm when he took the federal post.
A graduate of UC Davis and Hastings Law School, Veneman worked as a deputy public defender in Stanislaus County and as a attorney for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System before moving to Washington.
Assembly Agriculture Committee Chairman Trice Harvey (R-Bakersfield), who does not know Veneman, said he was surprised to learn that she was the front-runner, given that at least two farmers in the Wilson Administration were candidates. But Harvey said she "has a good resume" and called it "good news" that Wilson moved quickly to replace Voss.
Reaction among farm groups and farmers was lukewarm.
"The California Farm Bureau Federation continues to believe a farmer or rancher, someone who has experience with government regulation at the ground level, should serve as a secretary of food and agriculture," Farm Bureau President Bob Vice said in a statement. The Farm Bureau, however, will support her appointment, the statement said.
While Veneman may not be well-known in Sacramento, that is not the case in Washington. Bill O'Connor, policy director of the House Agriculture Committee, called Veneman "capably trained for this job, both in experience and background." He said she spent much time in California during her years in the Bush Administration and had agriculture clients in her legal work.
"If you wanted to find somebody who could step in and do this from outside the (California agriculture) department, she's about the best choice you could make," O'Connor said.
A Washington attorney who worked with Veneman in recent years called her "very political," adding that "she was touting her ability to know her way around the (federal) agriculture department--who to call and how to access them. She's a bit of a self-promoter, but that's usual in a political type."
She has been on the board of directors of Calgene Inc., a Davis firm that grows genetically engineered foods such as tomatoes, but she said she resigned the post on learning of her appointment.
In Washington, Patton, Boggs & Blow represents agriculture interests such as the Dairy Institute of California and Dole Foods, one of California's largest growers, packers and processors. Veneman said she had represented Dole, but will give up her law practice while she heads the agriculture department.
Some partners of the law firm are political fund-raisers, particularly for Democrats, but the firm's clients include several major Republican donors, something that may serve Wilson well as he runs for President.
Veneman also is part of the Modesto law firm of Damrell, Nelson, Schrimp, which represents farm businesses. The firm also lobbies in Sacramento. Frank C. Damrell, the firm's founder, was a seminarian with former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., went through college and law school with Brown and remains a friend.
"She probably has had more experience in public policy than any other (agriculture) director we've had, particularly on trade issues," Damrell said. "That is the future of California agriculture."
Times staff writer Alan C. Miller contributed to this story from Washington.