Georgians Tom Price, Sonny Perdue adjust to life at political pinnacle
Vice President Mike Pence, right, administers the oath of office to Tom Price, as his wife, Betty, holds a Bible, to become the secretary of health and human services. Price now heads a department with a budget of roughly $1 trillion and oversees programs such as Medicare, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and food safety. It makes a meeting with Price one of the most desirable tickets in Washington for a large number of interest groups. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The mood in the great hall of the National Museum of Women in the Arts was a festive one even before former Gov. Sonny Perdue swept through with his cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and a phalanx of aides on a cloudy January evening.
Hundreds of black tie-clad Georgians were assembled there to toast Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration. But the undisputed star was the state’s former Republican governor, who was announced as Trump’s secretary of agriculture pick earlier that day.
Attendees, many who had known Perdue for years, lined up to shake his hand, wish him well — and perhaps curry favor.
After decades in Georgia politics, Perdue and Tom Price — the Roswell congressman who was absent that evening but has since been confirmed to lead the Department of Health and Human Services — are well-known commodities in the state. But their new national profiles bring a fresh set of circumstances to which they must adjust: immense power, yes, but also higher levels of attention and scrutiny from the press, a relentless schedule and an outsized boss to boot.
“It’s very intense,” former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said of his experience getting nominated and serving in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet. “Once a nomination is made there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Cramming and schmoozing
As soon as they were nominated, Price and Perdue were assigned special handlers from the transition team, known as “sherpas,” to guide them through the Senate confirmation process.
Price’s was Cynthia Berry, a former Senate GOP staffer and a counsel to the American Medical Association, a group Price had been a member of for years. Perdue has been working with public relations guru Diane Cullo.
One of the first steps in the confirmation process is handing over years worth of tax returns and a trove of personal and financial details so the transition team, the Senate, the FBI and the federal Office of Government Ethics can pick through and make sure there are no red flags.
The procedure is known to be an incredibly intrusive one.
“I’d run eight times for office, I’d been through vetting with the president for other things,” Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama’s first health secretary and the former governor of Kansas, said about the paperwork in a recent interview, “but nothing I would say quite like this.”
From there, life in the Washington Cabinet bubble turns into something a little more familiar: cramming.
Nominees are handed binders stuffed with information about the programs they would oversee as a Cabinet secretary. The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are both particularly sprawling enterprises, with broad jurisdictions and budgets totaling, respectively, about $150 billion and $1 trillion. Perdue’s would-be department includes authority over food stamps, nutrition programs and rural development, while Price now oversees everything from Medicare and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to food safety.
The reading materials are designed to ensure that nominees have enough basic information to get them through their confirmation hearings unscathed. Also included are primers on the pet and parochial issues of important senators who will ultimately decide whether their nominations should advance. That comes in handy as the nominees are shepherded through a series of private meetings with senators ahead of their confirmation hearings.
“You don’t want to go into a meeting with a senator from Nebraska and talk about orange crops,” said Johanns, who also served as a Nebraska U.S. senator from 2009 to 2015. “You have to be prepared.”
Price wasn’t particularly known as a social butterfly during his dozen years in the House, but he had pre-existing relationships with many of the senators who vetted him from his work over the years on Capitol Hill.
The socializing has come a little more naturally to Perdue, who is known as a gifted retail politician from his years on the campaign trail in Georgia, allies say.
“He loves it, actually,” David Perdue said of his cousin’s meetings. “He’s a more natural schmoozer than I am, and he makes friends easily.”
Unlike Price, though, Sonny Perdue is meeting most senators for the first time, so meetings have taken up a substantial portion of his schedule in recent weeks.
Perhaps the most infamous part of the preparation process is the tradition known as “murder boards,” private mock hearings where transition aides and occasionally former members of Congress pummel a nominee with questions to train him for any queries he could get at his confirmation hearing.
The goal is to to get him as comfortable with the issues and players as possible in order to minimize surprises and slip-ups.
Price is known to be a good study, and he came into his two Senate confirmation hearings well-versed on the details of health care policy. What he was not expecting at the outset of the process, according to several allies and former aides in touch with Price, was the stream of media reports on his stock trades. Democrats seized on the reporting, questioning his ethics and his judgment while stopping just short of alleging insider trading.
Price was overall even-keeled during his two spins in the Senate hot seat, appearing visibly irritated only once, when Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed him on his stock holdings and views on entitlement programs. But two former aides said Price was frustrated about the seemingly nonstop narrative about his stock trades, which they said amounted to an unfair character assassination that they worry has done lasting damage to his reputation.
Price’s confirmation was never in doubt, but the staffers said the seven-term lawmaker was particularly hurt by the allegations trumpeted by some of the Democrats with whom he had previously worked, such as U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
“The guy has literally lived his life in the most ethical manner he could, and for him to be getting national headlines saying that … he got a sweetheart deal and that he’s unethical — it hurt him personally,” said one former staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Price and members of the transition team maintained throughout the confirmation process that everything he did regarding his financial trades was legal, aboveboard and publicly reported. Allies said they were frustrated at the extent to which Price’s hands were tied when it came to publicly defending his name during the process.
Perdue’s confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled. He has largely avoided the spotlight to date, partly because his paperwork has not been finalized.
Other major adjustments have centered on their privacy and finances.
For Perdue, his nomination to lead the Department of Agriculture has meant giving away a comfortable state of semi-retirement in Middle Georgia near his family, moving to Washington and likely liquidating his businesses.
“This is a serious undertaking,” David Perdue said in an interview. “He’s doing it with the commitment that he feels like he can add value and help this president be successful.”
Price agreed to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock as part of his conflict-of-interest agreement with the government. He also transferred ownership of his surgical business to his wife and stepped down as a delegate to the American Medical Association.
Showered with attention
Price may be more accustomed to the ways of Washington than Perdue, but the biggest adjustments for the two men now that they have entered the Cabinet bubble may have most to do with schedule and lifestyle.
Their schedules are essentially no longer their own, between the studying required for nominees and obligations for those who ultimately are confirmed.
They are required to cut off contact with the media during the confirmation process — both Perdue and Price declined requests for interviews through their representatives — and communication with family, friends and other allies is also clipped.
Flying under the radar hasn’t been a fundamental change for Price, who was generally press-shy during his dozen years in the House. He hasn’t granted an interview with the press since being confirmed as health secretary.
Perdue has been polite but quiet when approached by reporters on Capitol Hill. He has largely avoided the spotlight since retiring in 2011, focusing most of his time on his businesses and Middle Georgia home, but he did make exceptions while stumping for several Republican presidential candidates ahead of the 2016 primary.
The attention also extends to lobbyists.
Now that Price is confirmed, a meeting with him is now considered one of the most desirable tickets in town for the plethora interest groups with a stake in the Department of Health and Human Services.
The process starts in earnest with the Senate confirmation hearings, but much of the real work comes after an official is sworn in. Groups and lobbyists scramble to meet with the secretary and top aides to get them versed on their causes.
Bob Redding, a lobbyist for a variety for agricultural interests including Southeastern-grown peanuts, said it makes his job easier when Cabinet secretaries already have a background in the industry.
“Many times with secretaries and others you have to start from the basics,” Redding said. Having someone who is well-versed in your industry “has tremendous value … you can talk about the issues.”
That’s why many agricultural and health care-related groups praised Perdue and Price when they were nominated.
While much of the subject matter may not be new for Price and Perdue, harder to adjust to is the grueling pace of the job.
“No matter how exhausted you are there’s never a meeting that he can go into, find a chair in the back of the room and just kind of zone out. He is the meeting, and so he has to be front and center,” Johanns said of Perdue. “And that’s the way every meeting will go. He’s got a very, very busy life ahead of him.”
Tamar Hallerman is an award-winning senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She covers the Fulton County investigation into whether former President Donald Trump or his allies criminally interfered in Georgia's 2020 elections.