Johanns Hits the Ground Running With Seasoned Team

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, son of Nebraska farmers, has wasted no time since assuming office in January tackling his department's hot-button issues: border restrictions on beef because of mad cow disease, nutrition and the complex $88 billion budget he oversees.

Next month, he will begin a listening tour across the country to gather input and opinions on what should be in the updated omnibus farm bill for 2007, an agenda item likely to dominate his tenure. Democrats say that although they disagree with many of the administration's fundamental policy and funding decisions, they believe Johanns has shown that he is engaged and knowledgeable.

The former Nebraska governor is starting to bring on board his own confidants from Nebraska, but he also has inherited most of his senior staff from former secretary Ann M. Veneman and the White House -- including the top posts of undersecretary and chief of staff -- all of whom have had long careers in the field.

"The secretary is very comfortable with them because they are very experienced," said Johanns spokeswoman Terri Teuber, who came with him from Nebraska and can be counted among his top advisers.

In the next month, Johanns will be joined by two more Nebraskans -- his state's agriculture director, Merlyn Carlson, who friends say is like a father figure to Johanns and who has expertise in regulatory issues, and Richard Raymond, Nebraska's chief medical officer for the department of health and human services, who is slated to oversee food safety.

Despite the long list of advisers steeped in agriculture experience, Teuber says Johanns still likes to reach into the community for advice. "He'll pick up the phone and call a rancher in South Dakota or a corn farmer in western Nebraska," she said. "That's how he really finds out what's going on."

Here's a brief look at the players who make up Johanns's inner circle at the USDA:

· Charles F. "Chuck" Conner was recently sworn in as deputy secretary, the department's second-highest post. Conner has built a career on the political and legislative side of agriculture policy. Most recently, he was on the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president for agricultural issues; he was considered the most influential aide on the subject in the White House.

Before becoming a Bush appointee, Conner was president of the Corn Refiners Association. He has been both the majority staff director and the minority staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

· Dale Moore is the department's chief of staff appointed by Veneman and retained by Johanns. Before joining the USDA in 2001, Moore was executive director for legislative affairs for the powerful National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Moore's expertise will be particularly valuable as the department and Johanns tackle the omnibus farm bill.

As legislative director of the House Agriculture Committee in the mid-1990s, Moore worked on the shaping and passage of the 1996 farm bill. Earlier, he was the Republican legislative coordinator for the House Agriculture Committee.

Moore grew up in Copeland, Kan., on a farm and holds a degree in animal science from Fort Hays State University.

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