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McNicoll: An Actual Farmer for Agriculture Secretary?

As of his news conference on Wednesday, President Trump is down to just one cabinet member to name: the Secretary of Agriculture.

Trump is considering three Texans – state agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, former ag commissioner Susan Combs and former Texas A&M President Elsa Murano.

But the most interesting candidate could be Abel Maldonado, the rare Republican to serve in statewide office in California in the last 30 years. Maldonado, a winemaker from Santa Maria, served as lieutenant governor of California in 2010-2011.

He was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after Democrat John Garamendi was elected to the U.S. House. He then lost a bid to serve a full term to former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Maldonado ran for state comptroller in 2006, Congress in 2008 and governor in 2014 and lost all three in overwhelmingly Democratic California.

But he has a number of things Trump seems to like in those he has been choosing for cabinet posts. For one, Maldonado has built something. His father was Mexican and his mother was from New Mexico, and he grew up picking crops with them in the fields of California.

They eventually saved enough to purchase a small farm and send Abel to school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. There, he studied crop science and left school without a diploma. But he returned to the family farm and used what he’d learned to turn a half-acre strawberry patch into a 6,000-acre farm that employs 250 people and ships wine around the world.

Frustrated at how long it took to obtain a building permit from the city of Santa Maria for a cooling facility on his farm, Maldonado decided to ruin for city council in 1994 at age 26. He won, became mayor in 1996, knocking off the incumbent by 70 votes. Three years later, he was elected to the General Assembly and earned more than 60 percent of the vote in all three of his elections there.

Another thing Trump seems to like is direct experience that yields direct knowledge of certain areas. In the final debate, he and Hillary Clinton got into a discussion over a Ford plant in Indiana that was facing the possibility of being relocated to Mexico. Trump knew exactly where the plant was and what it made, and he seems to appreciate that level of detail in others.

He likes that Rex Tillerson, the nominee for the secretary of state, has experience directly negotiating with foreign governments – and that Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education, actually has fought for market solutions to education.

Similarly, those who know Maldonado say he knows the specifics of the markets of a wide variety of the 400 crops grown by California’s 78,000 farmers and the 60 grown in Santa Barbara County alone.

“California has a gillion small crops, and I think he could represent those crops and also represent the big major crops,” said Peter Adam, a fifth-generation farmer and member of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

“I mean, I’ve seen his hands stained red with berries, so he knows what it is to do the work.”

Even Andy Caldwell, executive director for COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business) says it’s important to “have someone like Maldonado who understands California agriculture.”

And CNN says sources inside the transition want a farmer for the post to honor a request from the many farmers who supported Trump’s candidacy. They want someone who understands the urgency of rural development and creating new markets for agricultural products as varied as soybeans and corn to those produced in our nation’s private forests.

Additionally they want someone who will return the USDA to a focus on resources and how they can best be managed, and understands the harm of regulation and how to strengthen the agency to support our agricultural sector as opposed to trying to choke it through excessive regulatory action.

Trade groups in the state also have vouched for Maldonado. Eight such groups, including strawberry growers, dairies and pistachio farmers, wrote to the Trump team on his behalf.  The note made clear California’s reliance on immigrant labor – “He’s got a special knowledge and background about the needs of California and specialty crops and the immigrant labor to harvest our crops.” — which concerned some because of Trump’s strong stance on the border.

Others in Washington, including those who represent small farming operations as well as some in the forest products industry have reportedly voiced their support to members of the presidential transition team.

But Maldonado, it is said, would give the White House a real window into that world and how problems might be resolved.

It shouldn’t matter – although it certainly does – but Maldonado also would bring a layer of diversity to Trump’s cabinet that many might not have anticipated given his statements about crime and immigration and about a judge of Mexican descent who ruled on a case involving Trump’s business interests.

Trump has proven he thinks out of the box when it comes to cabinet nominees. An American success story, a farmer at that, of Mexican descent who has a proven record of building small things into big could go a long way toward cementing that reputation.

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