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Bush’s USDA Nominee Has Deep Farming Roots

Times Staff Writer

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, nominated by President Bush on Thursday to be the next Agriculture secretary, grew up on an Iowa dairy farm and has traveled widely to promote farm products from Nebraska, where he has served as governor for two terms.

If confirmed by the Senate, Johanns, 54, would succeed Ann M. Veneman, a Californian, as head of the 113,000-employee department.

His appointment was hailed by a cross-section of interest groups with often-competing positions on issues that come before the agency. Some Democrats from the Plains states also praised Johanns’ appointment.

In a brief ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Bush hailed Johanns as a son of the heartland who “grew up close to the land” and who had long been “a faithful friend to America’s farmers and ranchers.”

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Two years ago, Johanns became the first Republican to be reelected governor of Nebraska in almost half a century. He traveled around the world to promote Nebraska agricultural products. But he also stayed in touch at home, visiting each of the state’s 93 counties.

As governor, Johanns promoted tax relief, opposed pay raises for public officials, vetoed a moratorium on the death penalty and, in a move that earned him the support of many unions in the state, supported a meatpacking workers’ bill of rights after shoddy workplace practices were exposed.

Johanns has a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., and a law degree from Creighton University in Omaha. He began his public service career in 1982, when he was elected to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners. He later became a Lincoln city councilman and then mayor.

Bush and Johanns met a decade ago, when they were governors. Bush was elected Texas governor in 1994, and Johanns four years later.

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“I’ve known Mike for a number of years, going back to my own service as a governor,” the president said as he introduced Johanns. “I know firsthand his deep commitment to a strong farm economy. He’s been a leader on drought relief in Nebraska and throughout the Midwest. He’s a strong proponent of alternative energy sources, such as ethanol and biodiesel. He’s traveled the world to promote American farm exports.”

Johanns’ appointment would appear to rule him out as a potential 2006 challenger to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who Republicans believe is vulnerable.

Johanns is the father of two children. His wife, Stephanie, is a former state senator and now a vice president for external affairs at a communications company in Nebraska. They met and began dating as fellow county commissioners.

Among those praising Johanns’ nomination was the Humane Society of the United States, which has been critical of the Agriculture Department for allegedly inadequately enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. “Gov. Mike Johanns has been a friend of local humane organizations in Nebraska, and he has brought a sensible approach to animal issues in the state,” said the organization’s chief executive, Wayne Pacelle.

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Also greeting the nomination were a range of groups representing agricultural producers. The American Farm Bureau said Johanns had “consistently demonstrated his commitment to promoting rural economic development,” and the California Farm Bureau said he “understands the importance of agriculture not only there in his state but around the country.”

The National Pork Producers Council said Johanns had a strong background as an advocate for agriculture and noted that he came from the fifth-largest pork-producing state.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) also welcomed Johanns’ nomination. “Anytime you have someone who grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa, you have to believe that person understands what it means to be a family farmer or rancher and the problems they face,” he said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer and activist organization, called on Johanns to ensure food safety and promote nutrition in addition to touting America’s agricultural products.

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“Right now, USDA probably does more to promote heart disease and obesity than it does to prevent them,” said Michael F. Jacobson, the center’s executive director.

Johanns would take office at a time when the farm economy has been on the rebound, with many farm families enjoying greater income while selling record amounts of foodstuffs abroad.

“We’ll keep working to open new markets to American grain and beef and cotton and corn,” Bush said Thursday. “We’ll enforce trade laws to make sure other countries play by the rules.”

During the White House ceremony, the president also praised the departing Veneman, the first woman to head the Agriculture Department.

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Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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