Sonny Perdue has been living here for 18 months as a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, yet the former two-term governor still looms large over Georgia politics.
The political network he created remains among the most powerful in the state, with many of his onetime aides employed at the highest levels of the Trump administration, the Georgia Republican Party and state agencies.
Perdue himself has been a frequent presence in Georgia, and in Washington he has become enough of a trusted emissary to the president that Trump recently said he endorsed Brian Kemp’s gubernatorial bid at the suggestion of his secretary of agriculture.
Perdue’s influence in Georgia politics is undeniable, yet his activities as the Department of Agriculture’s top official have been difficult to track.
His office does not release calendars detailing whom he’s met with and what they discussed, a departure from many previous Cabinet secretaries.
“There’s no presumption of transparency,” said Melanie Sloan, a senior adviser at American Oversight, a liberal litigation group that has sued roughly a dozen federal departments, including the USDA, for the calendars of senior policymakers. “No administration is dying to hand over material — the Obama administration was not a paragon of transparency — but it is now at a whole different level.”
A suit from Sloan’s group forced the disclosure of documents that detail how Perdue has tried to balance his Washington duties with his knack for wading into Georgia politics.
The 338 pages of detailed schedules that American Oversight obtained show how Perdue juggled meetings with farm and industry groups and White House sitdowns during his first half-year in Washington while also keeping a close eye on the homefront. He traveled back to Georgia 13 times between late April and November 2017, much of it on the taxpayers’ dime.
Meetings with Georgians
When Trump tapped the Bonaire native to fill the agriculture post, farm groups and Georgia’s political elite were elated. In the former veterinarian and agribusiness owner they saw one of their own, someone with a deep understanding of Southeastern agriculture and global trade who would stick up for rural America in the White House, not to mention return their phone calls.
His early calendars show that indeed appears to be the case, starting with Perdue’s first week on the job, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
A day after he was sworn in, Perdue had breakfast with more than 100 members of the Georgia Farm Bureau, a Capitol Hill gathering that also included his first cousin, Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, a home-state farmer who served on a state agricultural advisory board when Perdue was governor.
The Republican huddled the next day with U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, an old colleague from the Georgia Senate, and other congressional agriculture leaders. A week later, he called a trio of old Georgia contacts on his lunch break, including Duvall and Billy Payne, who played on the University of Georgia football team with Perdue and was once chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club.
He also kept up with many prominent Georgia Republicans, including some with business before the department.
Perdue called Hunter Hill on Sept. 5, 2017, a week after he resigned his state Senate seat to run for governor. A week later, he spent half an hour with Bainbridge businessman Alec Poitevint, a longtime confidante and former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, who visited with the leadership of the American Feed Industry Association for a “general introduction” and discussion of its farm bill priorities. The month prior, several of his old allies from the state Legislature, including now-Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller and Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, dropped in to personally present him with a resolution “honoring Secretary Perdue on his appointment from the President.”
The secretary also maintained contact with many of his former aides, his schedules show.
Perdue spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Perdue “naturally maintains close relationships with people he has known and worked with throughout his life.”
“One would think that the U.S. secretary of agriculture’s having such strong connections to Georgia would be a positive development for the state,” he said.
Sloan said the volume of Perdue’s meetings with Georgia people “seems unusual.”
“Georgia obviously is agricultural,” she said, “but he does seem to have a lot of interest in maintaining his Georgia political connections.”
But Dan Glickman, who served as President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001, disagreed. He said it’s not uncommon for Cabinet secretaries to spend more time with people from their home states.
“You’re going to tend to meet with friends and people who are either supportive or want to help you,” he said, “so I don’t find it unusual at all.”
During his first six months on the job, Perdue headed to Georgia more than a dozen times, according to his calendars, part of an extensive travel schedule that has to date brought him to 45 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and seven countries.
Some of his Georgia visits were highly publicized affairs with international officials, like on June 19, when he hosted his Mexican and Canadian counterparts for a two-day trilateral trade meeting in Savannah.
Other trips were largely unpublicized weekends home that sometimes included one or two official stops at the tail end of longer trips elsewhere.
For example, a day after surveying wildfire damage in Montana with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in August 2017, Perdue held a Friday hearing in Tifton for a rural task force he heads. Two days later, he spoke at a church centennial celebration in Atlanta.
Sloan said tacking on official events in one’s home state has been used by some senior officials as a “way to have the taxpayer pay for their trip home.”
Murtaugh said Perdue’s trips to Georgia have been “substantive and beneficial.” He listed the secretary’s appearance at a groundbreaking for the USDA’s facility at the University of Georgia’s Southeast Poultry Research Lab, the rural task force meeting and a speech at the national gathering of the School Nutrition Association in Atlanta, among others.
“These are, again, occasions and events that are specifically relevant to the lives of Georgians and their families,” he said. “Aside from all of that, Secretary Perdue has 14 excellent reasons to be in Georgia — his grandchildren, who are always happy to see their ‘Big Buddy,’ as they call him.”
Perdue does not appear to have the high-flying taste of some of his Cabinet colleagues who were ousted for their indulgent spending, including ex-Georgia congressman and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and onetime Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Perdue flew coach for many of his trips, his calendars show.
Any trip involving a Cabinet member’s official events is paid for by taxpayers, but the total cost of Perdue’s early trips is unclear. Separate department documents summarizing Perdue’s travel between April and early October 2017 only include the cost of the secretary’s trips, not that of the team of staffers and security detail that often accompanied him. Of the eight Georgia trips listed on that document, Perdue’s travel cost taxpayers roughly $6,000, but those totals include stops in other states.
Perdue’s allies say his extensive travels inside and outside of Georgia are of benefit to the country since he’s talking to farmers, ranchers, foresters and other producers,
“The man knows of what he speaks because he is out with people that are dealing with the Department of Agriculture every day,” said John Watson, the chairman of the Georgia GOP who was once Perdue’s chief of staff. “It is not a bad thing, and it shouldn’t be frowned on that (he) travels to Georgia and his home state with 14 grandchildren.”
Locals involved in agriculture offered different opinions about whether Perdue’s continued contact has led to any better treatment of Georgia farm interests in Washington.
From his view in Congress, Bishop said he’s been “very pleased” with Perdue’s performance so far and how responsive he’s been to issues of concern to the state, including rebuilding efforts following recent natural disasters and the operation of crop subsidy programs.
“He knows the area, he knows the needs of agriculture firsthand, and I think he brings a great deal to that position,” said Bishop, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds and helps oversee the department. “His performance and the relationships that he has maintained with Georgia producers and agribusiness leaders in Georgia I think has been exceptional.”
Andy Lucas, a spokesman for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said Perdue has also been accessible to his group, but that it’s been about the same as with previous agriculture secretaries.
“Just because he’s from the state of Georgia, I don’t think he gives us a greater position to other states,” Lucas said.
Unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues, Perdue has maintained what appears to be a genuinely good relationship with Trump. Watson attributes it to the fact that the former governor has stayed out of the spotlight.
“The president, I believe, recognizes that the secretary keeps his head down, works without drama and gets the job done,” Watson said. “In a town filled at many times with drama, that’s a really wonderful attribute of a Cabinet secretary.”
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