Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
30th United States Secretary of Agriculture
Assumed office
January 20, 2009
President Barack Obama
Deputy Kathleen Merrigan
Krysta Harden
Preceded by Ed Schafer
40th Governor of Iowa
In office
January 15, 1999  January 12, 2007
Lieutenant Sally Pederson
Preceded by Terry Branstad
Succeeded by Chet Culver
Member of the Iowa Senate
from the 49th district
In office
January 11, 1993  January 11, 1999
Preceded by Jack Hester
Succeeded by Mark Shearer
Mayor of Mount Pleasant
In office
Preceded by Edward King
Succeeded by Stanley Hill
Personal details
Born (1950-12-13) December 13, 1950
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Christie Bell (1973–present)
Children 2
Alma mater Hamilton College, New York (BA)
Union University, New York (JD)

Thomas James "Tom" Vilsack (/ˈvɪlsæk/; born December 13, 1950) is an American politician who has served as the United States Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. A member of the Iowa Democratic Party, Vilsack served as the 40th Governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007.

On November 30, 2006, he formally launched his candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States in the 2008 election, but ended his bid on February 23, 2007.[1]

Barack Obama announced Vilsack's selection to be Secretary of Agriculture on December 17, 2008. His nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate by unanimous consent on January 20, 2009. He is the only current member of the U.S. Cabinet who has served since Obama took office.

On July 19, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Vilsack was on Hillary Clinton's two-person shortlist to be her running mate for that year's presidential election. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine was ultimately selected.[2]

Early life, education and career

Vilsack was born on December 13, 1950, in a Roman Catholic orphanage (or "Foundling Home") in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his 23-year-old birth mother (a secretary) had lived since September, 1950 under the pseudonym of "Gloria"; he was baptized as "Kenneth."[3] He was adopted in 1951 by Bud and Dolly Vilsack, who renamed him Thomas. Bud Vilsack was a real-estate agent and insurance salesman.

Vilsack attended Shady Side Academy, a preparatory high school in Pittsburgh. He received a bachelor's degree in 1972 from Hamilton College in New York. While at Hamilton he joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. He received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) in 1975 from Albany Law School of Union University, New York.

He married Christie Vilsack (née Bell) in 1973, and moved with her to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1975. There he practiced law.[4]

Early political career

In Mount Pleasant, Vilsack raised funds to rebuild an athletic facility for young people; in a 2016 interview, he describes himself "as the Jerry Lewis of Mount Pleasant for a couple days" when he hosted a pledge drive on the local radio station to raise the funds.[5] This led him to involvement in the local Chamber of Commerce and United Way. He and his wife volunteered in the 1987 presidential campaign of Joe Biden. After the mayor of Mount Pleasant was gunned down in December, 1986, Vilsack led a fundraising drive to build a memorial fountain.[6] The deceased mayor's father asked Vilsack to run for mayor of Mount Pleasant; he was elected and began serving in 1987.[4] He was elected to the Iowa Senate in 1992.[4] Following his election, he worked on legislation requiring companies who received state tax incentives to provide better pay and benefits. He helped pass a law for workers to receive health coverage when changing jobs, and helped re-design Iowa's Workforce Development Department. He also wrote a bill to have the State of Iowa assume a 50% share of local county mental health costs.

Governor of Iowa

In 1998, Terry Branstad chose not to seek re-election after sixteen years as governor. The Iowa Republican Party nominated Jim Ross Lightfoot, a former U.S. Representative. Vilsack defeated former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick in the Democratic primary and chose Sally Pederson as his running mate. Lightfoot was the odds-on favorite to succeed Branstad and polls consistently showed him in the lead.[7] However, Vilsack narrowly won the general election and became the first Democrat to serve as governor of Iowa in 30 years and only the fifth Democrat to hold the office in the 20th century.

During the 2000 contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, he remained neutral.[8]

In 2002 he won his second term in office by defeating Republican challenger attorney Doug Gross by eight percentage points.[9]

Governor Tom Vilsack in 2008.

In first year of his second term, Vilsack used a line-item veto, later ruled unconstitutional by the Iowa Supreme Court, to create the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a $503 million appropriation designed to boost the Iowa economy by offering grants to corporations and initiatives pledged to create higher-income jobs. He vetoed portions of the bill that would have cut income taxes and eased business regulations. After a special session of the Iowa General Assembly on September 7, 2004, $100 million in state money was set aside to honor previously made commitments. The Grow Iowa Values Fund was reinstated at the end of the 2005 session: under the current law, $50 million per year will be set aside over the next ten years.

Candidates seeking to replace Vilsack, notably Des Moines politician Ed Fallon, criticized this program.[10] They complained that companies attracted to Iowa by the fund can be lured away by financial incentives elsewhere and that the legislation does not promote new business creation.[11]

For most of Vilsack's tenure as governor, Republicans held effective majorities in the Iowa General Assembly. Following the November 2, 2004, elections, the fifty-member Senate was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and Republicans held a 51–49 majority in the House of Representatives.

In July 2005, Vilsack signed an executive order allowing all felons who had served their sentences to vote.[12] He said: "When you've paid your debt to society, you need to be reconnected and re-engaged to society". Previously, convicted felons were disenfranchised, but could petition the governor to initiate a process, normally requiring six months, to restore their right to vote.[13]

During the 2005 legislative session, Vilsack signed legislation designed to reduce methamphetamine use. It imposed greater restrictions on products containing the active ingredient pseudoephedrine, requiring them to be sold behind pharmacy counters rather than via open-access. It required purchasers to show identification and sign a log book. It took effect on May 21, 2005.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London in June 2005, Vilsack vetoed a bill to restrict Iowa's use of eminent domain, citing its potential for negative impact on job creation. He said: "You have an interesting balance between job growth, which everybody supports, and restricting the power of government, which a lot of people support".[14] His veto was overridden by the legislature.

Vilsack is a former member of the National Governors Association Executive Committee. He was chair of the Democratic Governors Association in 2004. He was also chair of the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, the Governors Ethanol Coalition, and the Midwest Governors Conference, and has also been chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association's committee on Natural Resources, where he worked to develop the NGA's farm and energy policies.[15]

Vilsack was thought to be high on the list of potential running mates for Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. In 2005, Vilsack established Heartland PAC, a political action committee aimed at electing Democratic governors. In the first report, he raised over half a million dollars. Vilsack left office in 2007; he did not seek a third term and was succeeded by Chet Culver.

2008 U.S. presidential campaign

On November 30, 2006, Tom Vilsack became the second Democrat (after Mike Gravel) to officially announce intentions to run for the presidency in the 2008 election. In his announcement speech, he said "America's a great country, and now I have the opportunity to begin the process, the legal process of filing papers to run for President of the United States." Vilsack dropped out of the race on February 23, 2007 citing monetary constraints.[16]

Vilsack's campaign logo

Vilsack's campaign made significant use of social media by maintaining an active MySpace profile, a collection of viral video clips on YouTube, a Facebook profile, videoblog on,[17] and a conference call with the podcast site TalkShoe.[18] On January 27, 2007, Vilsack called into the Regular Guys Show hosted by Kurt Hurner to conduct a 15‑minute interview on his running for the Democratic nomination for 2008. Since then, Vilsack appeared again on the show, now The Kurt Hurner Show at Talk Shoe on August 12, 2008, this time as a supporter of Barack Obama for president taking questions from callers to the program for 30 minutes.

During the campaign, Vilsack joined fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in supporting the establishment of a U.S. Public Service Academy as a civilian counterpart to the military academies.[19]

Shortly after ending his 2008 bid for the White House, Vilsack endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton and was named the national co-chair for Clinton's presidential campaign.[20]

Views on Iraq

Vilsack's was critical of President Bush's execution of the war in Iraq, but he hesitated to call for an immediate and complete pullout of U.S. forces: "I don't think we're losing in Iraq. It appears to be a draw. People are upset by the fact that their kids are over there and there doesn't seem to be any end to this whole process. It's not pacifism that makes people think this way. They're questioning the credibility and competence of the Commander-in-Chief."[21]

Vilsack announcing his withdrawal from the race

On December 5, Vilsack announced that he favored withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq and leaving a small force in the northern region for a limited period. He said that U.S. forces provided the Iraqi government with "both a crutch and an excuse" for inaction. He said that U.S. withdrawal "may very well require them to go through some chaotic and very difficult times", but believed it the only way to force the Iraqi government to take control of the country.[22]

Views on energy security

The Vilsack Energy Security Agenda set out a strategy to dramatically reduce U.S. reliance on foreign energy and to cut the United States' carbon emissions. It also called for replacing the Department of Energy with a new Department of Energy Security, to oversee and redefine the federal government’s role in energy policy. The reorganized department would have acted as an institutional advocate for innovation in energy policy, and was intended to ensure accountability as the nation works towards achieving its energy security goals. Through this new department, America’s overriding objective in energy policy would have been to make America the unquestioned leader in clean energy, enhancing national security and economic strength.[23]

In a 2007 lecture to the Commonwealth Club of California, Vilsack stated:[24]

Iowa is one of the nation's leading producers of corn-based ethanol, and many people in my state have an economic stake in the expanded use of corn-based ethanol. But the reality is that corn-based ethanol will never be enough to reach our goals. Some have suggested that we import more sugar-based ethanol from Brazil and we should indeed consider all sources of available ethanol...but if we are going to create energy security we can't simply replace one imported source of energy with another. That alone is not security...the only way we can produce enough domestically is if we greatly improve the technology used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Secretary of Agriculture

Vilsack introducing President Barack Obama at the Northeast Iowa Community College, for a White House Rural Economic Forum on August 16, 2011.


On December 17, 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama announced his choice of Vilsack as the nominee to be the 30th Secretary of Agriculture.[25] Vilsack has governed a largely agricultural state as did the previous two Secretaries of Agriculture, Mike Johanns (who was later a United States Senator from Nebraska) (2005–2007) and Ed Schafer (2007–2009).

The Senate confirmed Vilsack's nomination for the position by unanimous consent on January 20, 2009.[26]

Jeanne Shaheen with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill announcing a grant that helps local farms turn commodities into value-added products.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Vilsack, and New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill in August 2014, announcing a grant that helps local farms turn commodities into value-added products.

Reaction to Vilsack's nomination from agricultural groups was largely positive and included endorsements from the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund.[27] Opposition to the nomination came from the Organic Consumers Association, which outlined in a November 2008 report several reasons why it believed Vilsack would be a poor choice for the position, particularly as energy and environmental reforms were a key point of the Obama campaign.[28] Among those reasons the report cites: Vilsack has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for large industrial farms and genetically modified crops;[29] as Iowa state governor, he originated the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, effectively blocking local communities from regulating where genetically engineered crops would be grown; additionally, Vilsack was the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership, and was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry lobbying group.[30]


Vilsack appointed Shirley Sherrod as the Georgia Director of Rural Development, saying that she would be an "important advocate on behalf of rural communities."[31] Months after the appointment, Vilsack forced her to resign based on accusations of considering race in the handling of her job responsibilities at a private advocacy firm in 1986.[32] Subsequent reports claim that he overreacted to a video segment taken out of context, and the secretary expressed his "deep regret" to Sherrod in acting hastily.[33]

Vilsack approved a 15-cent per tree tax on Christmas tree sellers, as a result of over 3-years of lobbying from the Christmas tree industry. The Christmas tree tax is expected to raise approximately $4 million from holiday revelers. The purpose of the tax is to fund an advertising program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoting the sale of real Christmas trees.

On January 24, 2012, Secretary Vilsack was named the designated survivor by President Obama during the President's State of the Union address.[34]

Beef advocacy

In March 2012, Vilsack joined three midwest governors in a campaign to defend the use of a processed beef product made from trimmings left after beef carcasses are butchered, dubbed "pink slime" by its critics. He said that "it's safe, it contains less fat and historically it's been less expensive" and that it should be available to consumers and school districts that want to buy it.[35]

Global warming

At a Drake University forum on climate change April 22, 2014 Vilsack stated "agriculture tends to take the brunt of criticism about climate change, but the industry contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for a warming planet" and that while there were "challenges globally in terms of agriculture and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that's not necessarily the case in the United States."[36]

Threatened resignation

In 2015, Vilsack expressed the desire to resign to President Obama. The Washington Post reports that he said "There are days when I have literally nothing to do," he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit."[37] President Obama asked him to stay and asked him to look into the problem of opioid addiction.[38]

Electoral history

Democratic Primary[39]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 100.0%
1992 General Election:[40]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 50.1% - 12,544 votes
  • Dave Heaton (R), 42.1% - 10,551 votes
  • Dan Reed (I), 7.8% - 1,945 votes

Democratic Primary[41]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 99.9% - 1,201 votes
  • scattering, 0.1% - 1 vote
1994 General Election:[42]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 98.8% - 12,288 votes
  • scattering, 1.2% - 145 votes

Democratic Primary[43]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 51.2%
  • Mark McCormick (D), 48.5%
1998 General Election:[44]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 52.3% – 500,231 votes
  • Jim Lightfoot (R), 46.5% – 444,787 votes

Democratic Primary[45]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 98.6% - 79,277 votes
  • Write-in votes, 1.4% - 1,166 votes
2002 General Election:[46]
  • Tom Vilsack (D), 52.7% - 540,449 votes
  • Doug Gross (R), 44.5% - 456,612 votes
  • Jay Robinson (Green), 1.4% - 14,628 votes
  • Clyde Cleveland (Libertarian), 1.3% - 13,098 votes
  • Write-in votes, 0.1% - 1,015 votes

Personal life

Vilsack met his wife, Ann Christine "Christie" Vilsack, in a cafeteria while at college in New York in October 1968. Vilsack approached her and asked, "Are you a Humphrey or a Nixon supporter?" She replied "Humphrey" and they soon began dating. The couple was married on August 18, 1973, in Christie Vilsack's hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Vilsack and his wife moved to Mount Pleasant in 1975, where he joined his father-in-law in law practice.[4]

Tom and Christie Vilsack have two sons, Jess and Doug. Jess graduated from Hamilton College in 2000 where he, like his father, was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. Jess received a J.D. from the University of Iowa in May 2003. Doug later graduated from Colorado College and is currently attending the University of Colorado School of Law. He is also a research associate at the School of Law's Energy and Environmental Security Initiative (E.E.S.I.).

On May 1, 2006, it was announced that Vilsack had joined the Board of Directors of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Learning, a leading publisher of research-based math curricula for middle school, high school, and postsecondary students.[47]


  1. Vilsack Dropping Out Boston Globe, February 23, 2007
  2. "Two names emerge from Clinton's VP deliberations: Kaine and Vilsack". Washington Post. Retrieved July 19, 2016.
  3. "Interview with Tom Vilsack by David Axelrod on The Axe Files". August 15, 2016.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Okamoto, Lynn (October 15, 2009). "Vilsack biography". Des Moines Register. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  5. Interview with Tom Vilsack by David Axelrod on The Axe Files podcast, August 15, 2016
  6. Elizabeth Meyer, "30 years after mayor's death, Edd King Fountain to be rededicated Saturday," The Hawkeye, July 12, 2016
  7. Geraghty, Mary (November 2, 1998). "Despite tight race for Iowa governor, Lightfoot ahead among most likely voters". The University of Iowa: News Service.
  8. Ayres Jr., B. Drummond (September 28, 2000). "The 2002 Campaign: Campaign Briefing". New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  9. "The 2002 Elections: Midwest, Iowa". New York Times. November 7, 2002. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  10. "Iowa Joins Ranks of States to Restore Voting Rights to Felons" (PDF). PA Times. American Society for Public Administration. 28 (7): 1–2. July 2005. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  11. Zernicke, Kate (July 20, 2016). "Iowa Governor Will Give Felons the Right to Vote". New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2005.
  12. Gearino, Dan; Dorman, Todd (June 2, 2006). "Vilsack vetoes eminent domain". Sioux City Journal. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  13. Longley, Robert. "Tom Vilsack: Secretary of Agriculture". Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  14. "Thank You Video". Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  15. Kuhn, Eric. Vilsack Wants To Appeal To ME and YOU. Huffington Post.
  16. "EPISODE69 - The Kurt Hurner Show". TalkShoe. August 12, 2008. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  17. "Endorsements". Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  18. - Media Release Archived November 27, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. Goldberg, Jeffrey (May 29, 2006). "Central Casting". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  20. Fouey, Beth (December 5, 2006). "Vilsack wants smaller U.S. force in Iraq". Associated Press Archive. Associated Press. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  21. "Tom Vilsack for President". Archived from the original on October 23, 2012. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  22. Marris, Emma; Witze, Alexandra (January 14, 2009). "On the Record". Nature. 457: 242–243. doi:10.1038/457242a. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  23. "Sources: Obama to tap Vilsack as agriculture secretary". December 16, 2008. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  24. Senate confirms 6 Obama Cabinet officials, OMB director, CNN website, January 20, 2009.
  25. Schuff, Sally. Obama picks Vilsack for ad secretary. Feedstuffs, December 22, 2008, p1.
  26. "Sources: Six Reasons Why Obama Appointing Monsanto's Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, For USDA Head Would Be a Bad Idea". Organic Consumers Association. November 12, 2008. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  27. "2-Plants: US politicians attack BIO's GMO moratorium". Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  28. Sources: Iowa's Vilsack Named BIO Governor of the Year
  29. "Shirley Sherrod named Georgia Director of Rural Development". Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  30. Sheryl Gay Stolberg; Shaila Dewan; Brian Stelter (July 21, 2010). "With Apology, Fired Official Is Offered a New Job". Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  31. Montopoli, Brian (July 21, 2010). "Vilsack: I Will Have to Live With Shirley Sherrod Mistake". CBS News.
  32. "State of the Union: Tom Vilsack to serve as Cabinet's 'designated survivor". Washington Post. Associated Press. January 24, 2012. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  33. Henderson, O. Kay (June 1, 2012). "Branstad, Vilsack team up to combat "smear" campaign against beef product". Radio Iowa. Retrieved July 20, 2016.
  34. Donnelle Eller (April 22, 2014). "Vilsack: Agriculture unfairly blamed for climate change". Des Moines Register. Retrieved April 24, 2014.
  37. "Iowa Secretary of State Official Canvass Summary, 1992 Primary Election" (PDF). Iowa Secretary of State. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  38. "Iowa Secretary of State Official Canvass Summary, 1992 General Election" (PDF). Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  39. "Iowa Secretary of State Official Canvass Summary, 1994 Primary Election" (PDF). Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  40. "Iowa Secretary of State Official Canvass Summary, 1994 General Election" (PDF). Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  41. "1998 Gubernatorial Democratic Primary Election Results - Iowa". Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  42. Gubernatorial General Election Results - Iowa USA Election Atlas
  43. "Iowa Secretary of State 2002 Gubernatorial Primary Canvass Summary" (PDF). Iowa Secretary of State. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  44. "Iowa Secretary of State 2002 Gubernatorial General Election Canvass Summary" (PDF). Iowa Secretary of State. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  45. "Governor Tom Vilsack Joins Board of Carnegie Learning, Inc." (Press release). Carnegie Learning, Inc. May 1, 2006.
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Party political offices
Preceded by
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Democratic nominee for Governor of Iowa
1998, 2002
Succeeded by
Chet Culver
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Chair of the Democratic Governors Association
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Preceded by
Terry Branstad
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Succeeded by
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Preceded by
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United States Secretary of Agriculture
United States order of precedence (ceremonial)
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Order of Precedence of the United States
Secretary of Agriculture
Succeeded by
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Preceded by
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