Miller Center

Tom Vilsack (2009-2017) - Secretary of Agriculture

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Thomas James Vilsack was born on December 13, 1950, and days later he was placed in a Catholic orphanage in downtown Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he remained until he was adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. His orphaned infancy would not be the last of his troubled childhood; for much of his life, his mother struggled with prescription drugs and alcohol, and she left the family when Vilsack was only 13. Vilsack enrolled in Hamilton College in upstate New York where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1972, and three years later he earned a law degree from Albany Law School. After law school, he moved with his future wife to her hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Vilsack's path to politics and public office was an unconventional one but also one that allowed him to work on nearly every level of government. In a bizarre and tragic turn of events, December 10, 1986, proved to be the beginning of Vilsack's career in public office. A man name Ralph Davis opened fire on Mayor Edward King, killing the mayor during a city council meeting in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Because of his prior work in the community, Vilsack was asked to run for the office, an election that he won. After three terms as mayor of Mount Pleasant, Vilsack served as a state senator from 1992 until 1998. He was able to win the gubernatorial race in Iowa in 1998 as a Democrat despite the fact that Republicans had held the seat for the previous thirty years.

Because of his concern with the problems facing local Iowan communities and the profitability of small farmers, Vilsack was able to win the race by emphasizing his vision for making Iowa the "Food Capital of the World." During his campaign, he promoted the idea of redirecting the focus of his state on economic opportunity in rural communities and small towns through value-added agriculture, a promise he kept once elected. He focused a large majority of his attention towards creating new jobs and enhancing the economic opportunity within small rural communities. A strong advocate for alternative sources of energy, he was a supporter of the Iowan corn growers and the ethanol industry. President Barack Obama selected Vilsack as the secretary of the Department of Agriculture. Named Governor of the Year in 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, many experts believed Vilsack was the perfect candidate for the position because of his experience as governor of a highly agricultural state. Many feared, however, that his interest would push him to be partial to the corn-growing farmers of Iowa.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael Nelson

Professor Nelson is the Fulmer Professor Political Science at Rhodes College, a senior fellow of the Miller Center, and the senior contributing editor and book editor of the Cook Political Report. He is the author of multiple books on American politics and government, including:

Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (University Press of Kansas), which won the American Political Science Association’s Richard E. Neustadt Award for Best Book on the Presidency published in 2014

How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (LSU Press), which won the Southern Political Science Association’s V.O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics published in 2006