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Shirley Sherrod turns down USDA job after video controversy

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Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official ousted during a racial firestorm last month, declined Tuesday to return to the agency, though she said it was tempting.

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 9:33 PM

Shirley Sherrod politely declined to return to the federal government weeks after she was forced to resign amid a race-laden political controversy.

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Looking weary after a 90-minute meeting with government officials Tuesday morning, Sherrod said that she thought the Department of Agriculture's leadership would have supported her in the new job but that she questioned whether that was enough for her to be effective in the sprawling agency.

"The secretary did push really hard for me to stay and work from inside, but I look at what happened to me," she said at a news conference with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. "I know he's apologized, and I accept it. A new process is in place, but I don't want to test it."

In a phone interview afterward, she said: "There are many, many questions about the position. The secretary is committed to dealing with the issues of discrimination in his agency, but he is one person. You're dealing with discrimination that has been there through the years and a lot of it is systematic, so that's a tall order."

The Obama administration, which stumbled badly in the episode, had hoped to rectify its relationship with Sherrod, but apologetic calls from Vilsack and President Obama and the offer of a promotion to deputy director of outreach and advocacy failed to woo her back.

In rushing to oust Sherrod on the basis of a deceptively edited video of a speech she gave in March, the administration was left looking fearful of racial issues and conservative criticism. Sherrod, who is black, was called a racist and hastily forced to resign based on the misleading video clip, which made it appear that she had discriminated against a white farmer. Her speech, in fact, was about racial conciliation.

Initially, White House officials tried hard to keep the controvery from rising above Vilsack's level. But it wasn't long before President Obama felt compelled to weigh in, chiding his team not to be so afraid of the news cycle that they made rash decisions.

Vilsack said Tuesday that he will require better communication between senior officials when an employee's job is on the line.

Vilsack put his arm around Sherrod in the news conference, saying: "I did my best, I think it's fair to say. There's no one better suited in the country to help us than Shirley."

Sherrod, who has been a civil rights activist and an advocate for farmers, would have been the first person to fill the outreach position, which was created in the 2008 farm bill to deal with the department's egregious history of civil rights violations.

There are heavy expectations for the job within USDA, an agency that picked up the nickname "the last plantation" years ago. Thousands of minority farmers have lawsuits pending against the department for systematic discrimination in the granting of farm loans, and employee lawsuits against the agency have provided civil rights lawyers with years of work.

Sherrod, who was part of a lawsuit filed by black farmers against USDA in 1999, indicated that the firing had left a sour taste.


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