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WASHINGTON – Farm-friendly Nebraska governor Mike Johanns has been named the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture by President Bush, pending confirmation. The Republican governor will succeed Ann M. Veneman, who recently announced her resignation.
Analysts said the selection of Johanns reflects the Bush administration's desire to focus heavily on farm trade over the next four years. As governor, Johanns led a delegation of Nebraska's farm and business leaders on a trade mission to Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore and a half dozen other countries.
Born in Iowa and raised on a dairy farm, the 54-year-old Johanns became a lawyer and served in county and city government before becoming mayor of Lincoln, Neb., in 1991. He won the governor's office in 1998 and in 2002 became the first Republican to win re-election in more than four decades.
Johanns graduated with a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's College in Winona, Minn., in 1971. He earned a law degree from Creighton University in 1974 and was a clerk for Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Hale McCown. He practiced law in the mid-1970s and became a partner in the Lincoln law firm of Nelson, Johanns, Morris, Holdeman & Titus in 1977.
At first a Democrat, Johanns was elected to, and served as chairman of, the Lancaster Board of Commissioners in 1982. He left the board in 1987 and switched parties in 1988. Before becoming mayor of Lincoln, he served on the Lincoln City Council in 1989 as an at-large member.
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and typically a harsh critic of the USDA, congratulated Johanns on his nomination as the next agriculture secretary and urged the nominee to keep food safety and nutrition top of mind.
"I have no reason to doubt that Governor Johanns will aggressively promote American agricultural products, as did his predecessor," Jacobson said. "But, in addition to promoting agribusiness, I hope that, if confirmed, Governor Johanns takes seriously the other important parts of his job: ensuring safe food and promoting decent nutrition.
"Right now, USDA probably does more to promote heart disease and obesity than it does to prevent them," Jacobson said. "If a secretary of agriculture wanted to change that, he could help improve school meals and push to get junk food out of our schools; he could provide incentives to lower the fat content of meat and dairy products; and he could seek to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables through WIC, school lunch, food stamps, and other programs. And, to ensure meat and poultry is safe to eat, the next Secretary could embrace reforms designed to lower the risk of contamination."