O.C. Farmer Named to Cabinet

Times Staff Writers

Reaching into Orange County, a part of the state that voted overwhelmingly for him in the recall election, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday named a ponytailed strawberry and bean farmer to be his agriculture secretary.

The appointment of A.G. Kawamura brings a measure of what one Schwarzenegger transition team member termed "geographic diversity" to the cast of top aides and Cabinet secretaries quickly being assembled.

As Kawamura's appointment was announced, Schwarzenegger was in his transition headquarters in a downtown Sacramento office building, interviewing applicants for senior staff and Cabinet positions that he hopes to fill before the Nov. 17 inauguration. A friend and political ally, state Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), ordered in pizzas for the office.

Outgoing Gov. Gray Davis made some nominations of his own Wednesday. Davis submitted the names of two high-profile advisors for appointments to unpaid state positions, naming Maria Contreras-Sweet, secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, to the California State University Board of Trustees and Lon Hatimiya, secretary of the California Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency, to the state Lottery Commission. Both appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said: "It would be his preference that the governor would not move forward with additional appointments. But he recognizes the governor is still the governor."

Kawamura, 47, is a third-generation farmer who, with his brother Matt, tends 600 acres of small rented farm plots scattered across heavily Republican Orange County. He contributed $21,200 -- the legal maximum -- to Schwarzenegger's campaign on Sept. 18.

If he is confirmed by the state Senate, Kawamura will be called upon to address a range of issues that vex California farmers, including sagging profits, high costs for workers' compensation insurance and the incursion of red fire ants.

In an interview, Kawamura suggested that, as a regulator, his style would be conciliatory.

"There are regulatory and environmental issues that can be solved with a carrot instead of stick approach," Kawamura said.

At a time when the state's farmland is giving way to housing developments, Kawamura said, he wants to be the industry's champion. He said he would work to educate the public about farming's importance, both to the economy and to peoples' nutrition.

"One of the things I would like to make sure and do is reintroduce the importance of these things to the public," he said.

Kawamura is the grandson of Japanese immigrants who worked in the fields before starting a feed and supply business. During World War II, they were sent to a detention camp in Gila, Ariz.; they stayed there until the mid-1950s.

A spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles praised the appointment as an inclusive gesture.

"Especially in a state like California, where 10% of the population is Asian American, it's important to have people representing different backgrounds and experience," said Chris Komai. "Someone like Kawamura, while his background is in farming, can look at issues from the perspective of someone who has come out of our community."

Kawamura was born in Orange County in 1955. After college, he harvested grapes near Bakersfield before joining the family business, now called Orange County Produce.

He has held a series of agricultural posts, having served as chairman of the Western Growers Assn., an Irvine-based industry group for farmers and shippers; president of the Orange County Farm Bureau; and member of the California Strawberry Commission.

Both Republican and Democratic members of legislative agricultural committees praised the appointment.

State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), who heads the Senate Agriculture & Water Resources Committee, said: "A.G.'s going to be an excellent agriculture secretary. He's a vegetable grower down south. He knows the diversity and depth of California agriculture, and he's well aware of the markets that California farmers face, both domestically and internationally.... He's engaging, he's direct and he's a consensus-builder."

Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who was also on the strawberry panel, said the new agriculture secretary would need to "sink his teeth into workers' comp and give input to protect our agricultural lands. They stopped making farmland a long time ago, and if we don't protect it, no one will. Encroachment is a big problem. Water is huge. These are issues A.G. understands."

With his signature ponytail, Kawamura will strike a different profile than that of Davis Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons, a large stone-fruit farmer from the Central Valley.

Lobbyist Jackson Gualco, who represents farming interests, called Kawamura a "breath of fresh air."

"He is a thoughtful, innovative and successful farmer," Gualco said. "He is trying to find ways to have agriculture fit in an urban center and, at the bottom line, be a profitable venture."

Kawamura and his Orange County Produce have been modest campaign donors over the years. He gave his largest single donation -- $21,200 -- to Schwarzenegger.

Until then, Kawamura had given less than $30,000 in political donations, dating back to the mid-1990s. All the money went to Republicans, and to the trade group Western Growers Assn., which endorsed Schwarzenegger's election and helped push for Kawamura's appointment.

"A.G. is the perfect person for that position," said Edwin Camp, chairman of Western Growers. "He has a real hunger to educate the public nutritionally and about agriculture in general."

Times staff writers Dan Morain, Gregg Jones, Jean O. Pasco and Allison Hoffman contributed to this report.

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