Born in 1950, Tom Vilsack was adopted as an infant by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. He went on to earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from Albany Law School in 1975. After graduating, he and his wife Christie moved to her home state of Iowa, where his political career began. He was elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant in 1987. From there, he moved up the political ladder, becoming a state representative, then governor, before being appointed to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Barack Obama. He is reportedly on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's shortlist of possible vice presidential running mates.
Born on December 13, 1950 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tom Vilsack was adopted from an orphanage as an infant by his parents Bud and Dolly Vilsack. During his formative years, his mother struggled with alcohol addiction, which she overcame in 1963. He earned a history degree at Hamilton College in 1972 and continued his studies at Albany Law School. It was during his time in upstate New York, that Vilsack met his wife, Christie Bell, whom he married in 1973. After earning his law degree in 1975, the couple moved to the town of Mt. Pleasant in Iowa, Christie’s home state.
Political Career Beginnings
After the shocking murder of Edward King, the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, at a city council meeting in December 1986, Vilsack was encouraged to run for the office. He won the position and served from 1987 to 1992. He then set his sights on the Iowa State Senate, an office he held from 1993 to 1999. With his career on the rise, Vilsack ran for governor on the Democratic ticket and won, becoming the first Democrat to take the office in three decades. He served as Iowa governor for two terms from 1999 to 2007.
While Vilsack served as governor, he was a supporter of Monsanto and genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops. As a result of this support, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named him Governor of the Year in 2001. In 2005, Vilsack also made headlines when he issued an executive order to restore voting privileges to Iowans who had served their sentences for felony convictions. Although challenged, the order remained in place and, as a result, an estimated 115,000 citizens' voting rights were restored for the nearly six years the order was in effect. In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad, Vilsack's successor, rescinded the executive order.
Higher Political Aspirations
In late 2006, Tom Vilsack began a campaign to become the Democratic nominee for president, but dropped out just a few months later. After he left the race, Vilsack supported presidential candidate and then-Senator Hillary Clinton and was named co-chair of her national campaign committee. When Clinton lost the nomination to Barack Obama, Vilsack endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee. When Obama took office as president, he appointed Vilsack as the 30th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vilsack was sworn in on January 21, 2009. His appointment was lauded by some groups such as the National Farmers Union, the Corn Refiners Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, while opposed by others such as the Organic Consumers Association, primarily because of his positions on large industrial farms and pharma crop production.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
During his tenure, Vilsack has spearheaded a number of goals for the department, including investing in rural communities to help open economic opportunities in the post-recession economy while conserving natural resources and ensuring that America’s food supply is protected. He has also been a huge proponent of local farmers markets. According to the USDA, during his tenure, the number of farmers markets in the United States has expanded 180%.
Tom Vilsack has also advocated for lower income Americans to use their SNAP EBT cards to purchase fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets, and he has been a proponent of offering free breakfast to needy students in public schools. As a result, to date there are several million fewer children who are “food insecure” and a slight reduction in obesity among school children.
"Farmers markets are an important part of strong local and regional food systems that connect farmers with new customers and grow rural economies. In many areas, they are also expanding access to fresh, healthy food for people of all income levels." - Tom Vilsack
Additionally, Vilsack has worked with First Lady Michelle Obama on her signature Let’s Move! Campaign to fight childhood obesity. He has also supported the controversial use of lean textured meat (ligaments and muscles), also known as “pink slime,” in public school meals, stating that it is safe and has lower fat content than traditional ground beef, as well as it being a more economical option for tightened school district budgets.
Vilsack has also acknowledged the agriculture industry’s responsibility in contributing to greenhouse gases and global warming. In 2009, Vilsack announced an agreement with U.S. dairy producers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. In 2014, he announced the establishment of the Regional Hubs for Risk Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change. The first of its kind, the “Climate Hubs" research and evaluate all regions of the country in respect to agriculture and climate change, and provide farmers data-driven recommendations and assistance so they can make informed, science-based strategies to benefit them and the environment. Vilsack has also challenged farmers to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.
"For generations, America's farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have innovated and adapted to challenges. Today, they face a new and more complex threat in the form of a changing and shifting climate, which impacts both our nation's forests and our farmers' bottom lines," said Vilsack in a 2014 press release. "USDA's Climate Hubs are part of our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions, so that our agricultural leaders have the modern technologies and tools they need to adapt and succeed in the face of a changing climate."
Vilsack has also focused on educating people about soil health, encouraging crop diversity and researching pollinator health, including a study designed to help bees and monarch butterflies pollinate crops. Other initiatives include reducing food waste food, addressing drought and water shortages, establishing a micro-loan program for small farmers, extending growing seasons, and supporting farm-to-school programs.
In 2016, Vilsack was also tapped by President Obama to lead the administration’s initiative to address the increasing heroin and opioid abuse in rural America. His name was also added to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's shortlist for possible vice presidential running mates.
Vilsack and his wife Christie have two sons, Doug and Jess. His wife was a middle teacher for many years and has also taught English and journalism at Iowa Wesleyan College. As of 2013, she’s been Senior Advisor for International Education at the United States Agency for International Development.
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