Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge is making her case for Agriculture secretary, arguing she’s best positioned to take on a cabinet post that has never gone to an African American woman.
It's a move that sets up a battle with former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, long seen as the frontrunner for the post in the Biden administration.
In her first public remarks about her interest, Fudge told POLITICO on Wednesday that as an African American woman, she represents a crucial segment of the electorate that helped fuel President-elect Joe Biden's victory over President Donald Trump.
“When you look at what African American women did in particular in this election, you will see that a major part of the reason that this Biden-Harris team won was because of African American women,” Fudge said.
Fudge lamented that in her view, Black politicians tend to be relegated to a limited number of cabinet positions.
“As this country becomes more and more diverse, we're going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it's always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD,'" she said.
Mike Espy, who just ran for Senate in Mississippi but lost, was the first African American to serve as Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, but there have not been any Black women in the position.
"We need to start to look outside of the box and, as they have promised, a cabinet that is representative of this country as well as representative of the people who have supported them," Fudge added. "I think it’s a natural fit.”
Fudge is a longtime member of the House Agriculture Committee, and currently serves as chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee, which has oversight over USDA operations.
She is former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and past national President of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
She backed Sen. Kamala Harris during the Democratic presidential primary. After Harris dropped out, Fudge worked behind the scenes to secure a Biden victory. That included, at one point, urging Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn to go public with his endorsement of Biden before the South Carolina primary.
Fudge said she has not been in talks with the Biden transition team about the position.
"I do know there are many people who are lobbying. My name was mentioned even before the election,” Fudge said. “I’ve been very, very loyal to the ticket and I will remain loyal to the ticket.”
Behind-the-scenes jockeying for Agriculture secretary has ensued for weeks ahead of the election. Although Heitkamp was long seen as the frontrunner, there's growing opposition to her among progressives who worry that she will favor big business interests at the sprawling department.
A spokesperson for Biden's transition team declined to comment on Wednesday about the Ag secretary race.
“The Biden-Harris Transition team has not made any personnel decisions at this time,” said spokesperson Cameron French.
Fudge's allies are organizing to build support for the Ohio Democrat's desire to lead the agency. Congressional Black Caucus leaders have made it clear to the transition team that she’s their pick for the role.
Clyburn has spoken to the Biden camp about a Fudge USDA post, according to an aide. He had also previously floated Fudge’s name for a potential vice presidential pick.
Fudge’s allies point to her close relationship with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown as being valuable during a potential confirmation process, especially if Democrats don't end up controlling the Senate.
The congresswoman has become best known for fighting back against the Trump administration’s attempts to crack down on the food stamp program — which makes up the vast majority of the USDA’s budget — but her surrogates are making the case that Fudge’s record extends far beyond nutrition.
Fudge has been a strong proponent of boosting USDA’s conservation programs, leading a push during the 2018 farm bill to protect water quality from agricultural runoff and improve soil health.
Fudge said she did have the backing of some agricultural groups and “certainly have the backing of most of the feeding programs,” as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
“I do believe that because of my work with some of the other ag groups, my being from Ohio — where ag is huge — I think [winning support] is not going to be a problem,” Fudge said.