Breaking: Donald Trump taps Sonny Perdue as his agriculture chief

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue at Trump Tower in November. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue at Trump Tower in November. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump picked former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday to be his agriculture secretary, tapping a veterinarian-turned-politician who was the state’s first Republican governor in more than a century to lead the sprawling department.

Perdue, 70, had emerged as Trump's leading contender to run the agriculture department in recent days, and he is said to have impressed the New York businessman with his experience in public office and in the private sector.

The announcement is expected Thursday.

Perdue becomes the second Georgian selected to join Trump’s Cabinet after U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell was tapped as health secretary.

And Trump went down to the wire with the Perdue pick, making him his last Cabinet selection before he is sworn into office Friday. The choice was mired in political wrangling, with some factions pushing Trump to opt for someone from the Midwest or to diversify his Cabinet by naming a Hispanic official.

If confirmed, Perdue would become the new head of the $140 billion agency, which dictates the nation’s farm policy and also oversees the food stamp program. He would be the first agriculture secretary from a Southern state since Mike Espy of Mississippi headed the department in the early 1990s.

Perdue has been tight-lipped about the drawn-out process, but he interviewed with Trump on Nov. 30 and enthusiastically sought the job.

“He asked me what my skills sets were and I told him what they were, aside from having been governor, as a business person and primarily in agricultural commodities, trading domestically and internationally,” Perdue told reporters after that meeting. “And he lit up.”

His onetime protege, Nick Ayers, played a key role in helping both Perdue and Price land Cabinet posts. Now a top aide to Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Trump’s transition team, Ayers cut his political teeth on Perdue’s 2002 campaign and has been a longtime aide to the former governor.

“Georgia walks away with two of the most consequential Cabinet secretaries who happen to be the two most qualified for the job,” said Ayers, who is married to a cousin of Perdue’s and was a finalist to lead the Republican National Committee. “It’s a testament to the president’s extraordinary decision making and his appreciation to Georgia.”

A surprise election

A native of Perry, Ga., Perdue helped craft the state’s agriculture policy in the 1990s as a Democratic state senator from Houston County before switching to the GOP in 1998.

His surprise victory over Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002 – making him Georgia’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction – triggered a Republican wave in Georgia that flipped the state Senate and then the state House. Georgia Republicans now control every statewide office in Georgia.

As governor, he carved out a reliably conservative record that included legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and creating new photo ID requirements for Georgia voters.

He also oversaw Georgia's decades-long water dispute with Alabama and Florida and the state's response to an epic drought that prompted him to call for stiff water restrictions. At the height of the drought in 2007, he joined with other state officials on the statehouse steps to lead a solemn prayer for rain that drew national headlines.

He attracted scrutiny for using taxpayer money to build the Go Fish Education Center near his home in Bonaire, Ga. The facility has attracted about one-fifth of the visitors expected to use the facility and the state still owes at least $12 million for the project, which the New York Times dubbed a “symbol of waste” when it opened.

Since leaving office in 2011, Perdue has run a string of trucking, agriculture and logistics firms from his base in Middle Georgia – a role that helped burnish his appeal to Trump.

He was not always an enthusiastic Trump supporter - he initially endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and then former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - but he stumped for Trump across Georgia in the final months of his campaign and served on the president-elect's agriculture advisory board.

Aside from Ayers, Perdue will have another powerful ally in Trump’s orbit: His first-cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, an early supporter of the incoming president.

“Sonny’s background in business, his medical background, his executive background as a governor make him an ideal choice,” David Perdue said. “In fact, I think he may be the best choice I know in America to be in that ag position.”