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Players: Mike Johanns

A Farm-Raised USDA Choice

Cabinet Nominee Brings Heartland Credentials

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A35

In Mike Johanns, President Bush may have found the ideal GOP candidate to head the Department of Agriculture, a man who by all accounts is risk-averse, is committed to Christianity, supports social programs like the Democrat he once was, and, by necessity, knows his beef and corn as leader of one of the nation's largest agricultural states.

It should also be noted that the Nebraska governor, now a Republican, told friends that this is his "dream job," having grown up on a mid-size Iowa farm and raised hogs to put himself through college.

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, with his wife, Stephanie, was picked by President Bush to succeed Ann M. Veneman as the secretary of agriculture. He is not expected to face serious opposition when the Senate agriculture committee holds confirmation hearings next year. (Bill Wolf -- AP)

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Through the White House, Johanns, 54, declined to be interviewed because of his pending Senate confirmation hearings. Democrats indicated this week that Johanns is an acceptable choice and is not likely to face serious opposition to his nomination -- which is not to say he gets a free ride.

"I'm optimistic we can work together to make real progress on the tough challenges awaiting Governor Johanns at USDA -- ranging from farms and ranches to consumer food safety to the rural economy and jobs," Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said through a spokesman. "That said, a strong working relationship doesn't mean I will stop standing up for what is right and raising concerns about policies and actions at USDA."

Johanns has his work cut out for him as the department faces some of its most challenging issues in the next few years: the looming international threat of mad cow disease, protecting the nation's food supply against potential terrorist attack, nutritional issues and the writing of a new farm bill, to replace the one that expires in 2008.

Democratic critics in Nebraska complain that Johanns has been too much of a go-along, get-along guy, reluctant to take stands or to make waves on controversial issues and consequently reluctant to show leadership. They cite the state's finances -- a $400 million deficit -- and his unwillingness to take the lead on hard spending choices. In 2003, he became the first Nebraska governor in three decades to veto the entire budget bill, rather than utilize a line-item veto to cut or reduce specific spending items.

Still, it would be hard to argue that Johanns lacks experience in the field. Twenty-two percent of his state is employed by farm-related industries, which account for $9 billion of Nebraska's economic base. The state is also one of the largest producers of red meat in the nation and one of the largest exporters of agricultural products, something Johanns has cultivated through trade missions. During his tenure, Nebraska exports to China increased from $51 million in 1999 to $110 million last year.

In addition, Johanns has been on the forefront of ethanol production, an alternative fuel source that comes from corn and is a critical source of income to farm states. Nebraska produces 1 billion bushels of corn a year.

"What's driven his popularity and his success in Nebraska is his desire to help agriculture, to visit with producers to understand their concerns, to hear firsthand the problems," said Greg Ibach, deputy director of the state's agriculture department. "He knows the issues and the industry, and I think he can translate that to a national level."

But while everyone agrees Johanns is a good listener -- he visited all of Nebraska's 93 counties at least twice -- his detractors hasten to note that listening in and of itself is meaningless without action.

One exception earlier this year was his aggressive support of a legislative measure that would have allowed him to appoint a task force to review Nebraska's ban on corporate farming. The 22-year-old ban -- passed by a citizen initiative -- prohibits owners of agribusinesses who are not related by family ties to join forces. The ban is intended to protect small businesses from corporations. Johanns's efforts were met by staunch opposition from some unions -- and it failed.

"He showed his hand for the first time and it was a defining moment for him," said John K. Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which opposed Johanns's efforts. "It showed he was on the side of big business, not the small farmer.

"One thing is for sure, being secretary of agriculture will make it a lot more difficult to hide out on agriculture issues. . . . He will have to show his hand more," Hansen said.

Hansen and other critics, however, acknowledge that Johanns will probably support entitlement programs -- such as food stamps and school lunches -- as he historically has been reluctant to cut similar social programs in the state.

Johanns started his political career as a moderate Democrat. He even tried to become state Democratic chairman in the late 1980s but did not run for the post when it became clear he would not win.

In 1988, he joined the opposition in his increasingly Republican state. Allies and opponents believe he was strongly influenced by his second wife, Stephanie, who is described as a conservative Republican -- and his closest adviser. "She runs the show," said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Johanns was expected to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2006. While Nebraska politicos believe the race would have been close and intense, a poll taken last month did not favor Johanns. (Nelson reportedly was first approached by the White House for secretary of agriculture but declined.) "He was headed for that race -- no question," said Chris Peterson, a former Johanns aide and an adviser. "But when this came up, he thought what better way to wrap up his public service career."

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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