President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday that he’s expecting “big results” out of Sonny Perdue as U.S. agriculture secretary, but the former Georgia governor is largely a blank slate for many of the lawmakers who will be voting on his confirmation and working with him on farm policy.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Perdue was Trump’s choice late Wednesday, and the president-elect made it official Thursday morning.
“From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land,” Trump said in a statement.
Perdue had been the front-runner for agriculture secretary for weeks, but some Trump backers were hoping for a Latino candidate to add diversity to the president-elect’s Cabinet.
The 70-year-old Perdue, a veterinarian by training, has deep ties to agribusiness. That helped him win over Trump, but it could also pose potential conflicts as he seeks confirmation to lead the sprawling $140 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Perdue’s upset win in the 2002 race for governor triggered a GOP wave in Georgia, a onetime stronghold for Democrats. Today, both chambers of the Georgia Legislature and all the state’s constitutional officers are Republicans.
As governor, Perdue led the state through two recessions, providing a steady fiscal hand but infuriating fellow Republicans when he vetoed tax cuts. He also became immersed in a battle over whether the Confederate battle emblem should appear on the state flag.
But Perdue also brought a deep religious faith to the job: He resisted efforts to expand alcohol sales on Sunday, and when the state suffered a devastating drought, he led a vigil praying for rain.
He is the cousin of millionaire businessman David Perdue, the junior U.S. senator from Georgia and a vocal Trump backer.
Perdue becomes the second Georgian selected to join Trump’s Cabinet after U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell was tapped as health secretary.
The fact that Perdue is a relative blank slate may make it easier for him to sell himself to senators in the weeks ahead.
“I’d be very willing to listen,” said Arkansas U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “From what I hear he’s a very thoughtful guy, a very hard worker and is really good with the issues, so I think he’d be a viable candidate.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, said: “We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t really know him, so we’ll have to take a look at what his ideas are.”
Those in the farm and agribusiness sector praised the choice.
Gary Black, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said Perdue understands the needs of rural farmers.
“It really boils down to the farmer. I think what the president-elect has done is select a farmer’s choice,” Black said. “Agriculture is in Sonny Perdue’s DNA, and now it’s really going to have an opportunity to flourish.”
But environmental groups are skeptical of the choice.
“Perdue’s background indicates he will be a protector of Big Ag interests,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “But America needs a secretary of agriculture who’s responsive to a host of current concerns, from healthy food production and safe water quality to biodiversity and the impact of climate change.”
A onetime Democrat
Perdue is a native of Perry, the son of a father who farmed and a mother who taught school. He earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia before volunteering for the Air Force in 1971.
He left the military three years later and practiced as a veterinarian in Raleigh, N.C., before returning home to go into agribusiness. His company did well selling fertilizer and seed to farmers and buying their production for resale.
Perdue, then a Democrat, was elected to the Georgia Senate in 1990 to represent a small-town district in Houston County in an era when young lawmakers were seen but seldom heard. Two years later, the Georgia Political Almanac described him as “a quiet listener and student of the process.”
But he quickly climbed the ranks of the Georgia Senate, eventually rising to second in charge of the chamber. Along the way he fought with the chamber’s hard-charging majority leader, Charles Walker of Augusta, and he switched to the GOP in 1998.
He quickly became a vocal critic of Gov. Roy Barnes, whom he challenged in 2002 in a long-shot bid to oust the Democrat.
He and his campaign showed its hard edge, producing a video depicting the governor as a mammoth, power-hungry rat, wearing a crown and a necklace identifying him as “King Roy.”
During the campaign, Perdue called for an inspector general to weed out corruption and the elimination of the state income tax for many senior citizens, but the race was always about Barnes. The governor had alienated teachers and many others who found him highhanded. Perdue upset Barnes that November, becoming the first Republican in a century to win the state’s highest office.
The state Senate and later the state House flipped and became Republican after his surprise victory. His political machine in rural Georgia remains to this day a powerful force in the state.
But Perdue often battled members of his own party, who fought his attempts to raise taxes in 2003 and were disappointed by his veto of tax cuts on more than one occasion in his later years in office.
Perdue saw himself as a father figure of sorts leading the state, willing to publicly chastise lawmakers when they got out of line and praise their efforts when he thought they met his expectations. He loved hanging around with successful, wealthy businessmen and didn’t have a great love for judges and lawyers. He engendered intense loyalty among some, while critics saw him as disdainful and arrogant toward other politicians.
“He regarded himself so much more highly than anybody else regarded him it was really kind of preposterous,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist.
Public office and private deals
As governor, besides guiding Georgia through two recessions, he worked diligently — although sometimes unsuccessfully — to tighten the state’s notoriously weak ethics laws. He brought the state a new flag — ending years of long debate over the dominance of the Confederate battle emblem in the banner.
Barnes had angered some in the state by changing Georgia’s banner — a move Perdue and Price voted against — and Perdue campaigned in 2002 on a pledge to allow Georgians a vote on the flag.
But Perdue disappointed some of those backers when the state flag that Barnes had changed — with the battle emblem prominently displayed — was not among the options. Signs declaring “Sonny Lied” popped up after the change.
Perdue showed a willingness to take on other politically taboo issues as well: During his tenure, awards given for many HOPE scholars were downsized because lottery sales couldn’t keep up with skyrocketing college costs.
He went with the Republican flow on some hot-button issues, backing legislation that aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and creating new photo ID requirements for Georgia voters.
He also oversaw the state's response to an epic drought that prompted him to call for stiff water restrictions. He drew national headlines for leading state lawmakers in a prayer for rain at the height of the drought in 2007.
He likewise drew national headlines by getting a skeptical Legislature to approve $19 million in 2007 for a fishing tourism program he called Go Fish Georgia. Once lawmakers left town, he decided the most expensive component, the Go Fish Education Center, would be built down the road from his home.
His 2006 re-election campaign brought questions from critics who said he used his public office for political gain.
Unlike the two previous governors, Perdue didn’t put his assets into a blind trust once elected. Officials who put their holdings into a blind trust make no decisions about the investment. Perdue’s team said the governor turned over the day-to-day operations of his business interests to others after he took office. His disclosure that year showed his net worth had increased by about one-third, to $6 million, during his first term.
But later that year The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that Perdue had bought $2 million worth of land near Disney World from a developer whom he had appointed to the state’s economic development board.
And that he signed a new law just before the tax filing deadline that allowed him to defer paying taxes on Houston County land he sold, the proceeds of which, in part, went to pay for the Florida land. Perdue said at the time he signed the bill that he didn't know it would benefit him.
In the end, with a strong economy and stronger Republican political winds in the state, Perdue easily won re-election.
In his last few years in office, he fought with lawmakers from both parties, but he also succeeded in eliminating state income taxes on investments and pensions for many Georgia senior citizens. And he pushed the state to investigate cheating in Atlanta schools, later testifying against educators whom he thought robbed children of a legitimate education.
Among his final acts, in the last few weeks of his tenure, he pushed the state to buy a coveted tract of land next to his property in Houston County.
The General Assembly approved a bond package — recommended by Perdue — that included money for land conservation. But the package was not publicly mentioned as the intended source of money for Oaky Woods, which is adjacent to property Perdue owns.
In December 2010, less than a month before Perdue was to leave office, the Department of Natural Resources board and a commission the governor headed as chairman approved the state’s purchase of Oaky Woods for $29 million.
State officials voted to buy 10,015 acres of the property at $2,874 per acre. By comparison, developers bought the entire 19,000-acre Oaky Woods tract in 2004 for $1,600 an acre.
The owners had planned to develop the tract with shops, offices and thousands of homes before the real estate market deteriorated. Yet the state paid a premium for the property at a time when land prices had plummeted, and some who long wanted the pristine black bear habitat preserved found the deal questionable.
Bryan Long, the executive director of the liberal group Better Georgia, said Perdue abused his public office in order to enrich himself.
“In a normal administration, Perdue’s unethical swamp land deals and fishy business practices would disqualify him from playing such an important role in U.S. government,” Long said, “but in the swamp that is Trump’s Cabinet, Perdue fits right in.”
Others called Perdue a true public servant.
“Throughout his time as chief executive, Governor Perdue transformed Georgia with businesslike efficiency,” said Chris Clark, the president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce who served in several positions in the Perdue administration. “His focus on reform led the Pew Center to rank Georgia in the top tier of effective state governments and ensured our state would be well-equipped to meet future challenges.”
Since leaving office in 2011, Perdue has helped run trucking, agriculture and logistics firms from his base in Middle Georgia. He founded Perdue Partners with his cousin David.
The company billed itself as a “global trading company that facilitates U.S. commerce.” It promoted Sonny Perdue’s international contacts, including his work opening state offices for Georgia in Hong Kong and Beijing while he was governor.
A trucking company that Perdue Partners acquired hauled goods from the booming Port of Savannah even as David Perdue sat on the ports board. David Perdue's aides said there was no conflict on interest because the trucking company's contracts were with the companies importing the goods, not the port. The trucking company went out of business in 2015.
Sonny Perdue is also the managing member of AGrowstar, which purchases and stores corn, wheat and soybeans from farmers, then markets and sells the crops to processors, said Danny Brown, the company’s president. The company has about 3 million bushels of storage capacity at 11 sites in Georgia and South Carolina, Brown said.