Sonny Perdue was selected Wednesday as Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, giving the first Republican governor to lead Georgia since Reconstruction the opportunity to set the nation’s farm policy.
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.
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.
Perdue has been largely out of the political spotlight since leaving office in 2010. His onetime protege, Nick Ayers, helped him land the Cabinet post. 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.
Ayers said Perdue’s selection makes clear that Georgia will have a strong say in the new president’s administration.
“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.”
Another of the former governor’s cousins, millionaire businessman David Perdue, is the junior U.S. senator from Georgia and has been a vocal Trump backer.
Perdue would lead a vast bureaucracy of nearly 100,000 employees charged with overseeing the food stamp program, administering farm subsidies and shaping the nation’s rural agenda. And he’ll be charged with placating agriculture leaders worried that Trump is already neglecting the rural vote that helped deliver him the presidency.
Perdue said his background in business and farming were instrumental in winning Trump’s support.
“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 a November interview with Trump. “And he lit up.”
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.”
Gov. Nathan Deal, his successor, said Tuesday that Perdue’s appointment “will be great for this state.”
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 in his home county. 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. But 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 was immediately considered a leader in the then-minority Republican Party and 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, 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 original state flag — 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 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. 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.
The facility has attracted about one-fifth of the visitors that were expected, and the state still owes at least $12 million for the center, which The New York Times dubbed a “symbol of waste” when it opened as the recession-plagued state was making deep cuts in school spending and furloughing teachers.
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 battled 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.
‘An ideal choice’
Since leaving office in 2011, Perdue has helped run a 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.
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.
If Sonny Perdue is confirmed, he will be the first agriculture secretary from a Southern state since Mike Espy of Mississippi headed the department in the early 1990s.
Perdue stumped for Trump across Middle Georgia in the final months of the campaign last year, and he served on the president-elect’s agriculture advisory board. But he was not always an enthusiastic Trump supporter. He initially endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and then former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
David Perdue praised the choice of his cousin to lead the USDA.
“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 if he gets considered.”
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