USDA and Vilsack, possible VP candidate, honored by Latino group |

USDA and Vilsack, possible VP candidate, honored by Latino group

Amid reports that he is on the short list of vice presidential candidates that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is considering, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today accepted the Federal Agency of the Year Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and declared that he would be proud to be considered Latino and has a Latina daughter-in-law and a Latino grandchild.

Vilsack accepted the award from Luis Roberto Clemente, the son of baseball player Roberto Clemente, the award-winning Puerto Rican baseball player with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, where Vilsack grew up.

Luis Roberto Clemente noted that he turned 50 today, and Vilsack in turn noted that 1966 was the year that Roberto Clemente was the National League’s most valuable player. Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Nicaragua to aid earthquake victims in 1972, and in 1973 became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Clemente noted that Vilsack had been “a huge fan” of his father and that Vilsack, who was adopted, had overcome obstacles in his life.

Brent Wilkes, executive director of LULAC, called Vilsack “truly a role model and a champion for diversity.”

Vilsack said he was “proud to accept the award on behalf of the hardworking people of the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” but thanked said LULAC officials for “encouraging the Department of Agriculture to turn a page in its sordid history in civil rights” and encouraging “us to understand the power of diversity.”

Hiring Latino officials such as Jeffrey Prieto, the USDA general counsel; Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ed Avalos; Al Almanza, deputy undersecretary for food safety; and Oscar Gonzalez, the Farm Service Agency state executive director in California, Vilsack said, has made USDA function better and more efficiently.

Until the Obama administration, Vilsack said, no leader of the United Farm Workers had been invited to USDA – not even UFW founder Cesar Chavez – or even visited the department.

“We changed that. We wanted to be a department to work with those who work with us,” he noted.

Vilsack noted that USDA today announced $26 million in grants and loans for farm worker housing. (See following story.)

Vilsack said the issue of housing was “personal” to him because he and his son had traveled to McAllen, Texas, to help build homes for migrant farm workers. The experience of living in a house with an 80-year-old man who was taking care of a 12-year-old granddaughter “taught me never to take for granted the work of those who toil in the fields, who make life better for us – to always look for ways in which we can make life better for them.”

The country needs to “be sure we honor the work that is being done that has provided this incredible array of food we enjoy on a daily basis,” Vilsack added.

The Obama administration has made “substantial investments supporting Hispanic-serving institutions and increased access to land for Hispanic farmers and ranchers and expanded access to farm and business loans for underserved and minority business owners,” he said. USDA’s StrikeForce initiative has increased homeownership opportunities in the Colonias communities along the U.S./Mexico border and expanded access to quality nutrition for the elderly in Puerto Rico, he added.

But the country also needs to “fix a broken immigration system,” he said.

In conclusion, Vilsack noted that, as an adoptee, he does not know his origins, and when he speaks to minority groups he sometimes speculates on his ancestry, which he did the first time he spoke to a group of black farmers in Georgia after he became secretary.

“Maybe I am a Latino. Who knows? I would certainly be proud to be one if you want me. … I’ve got a daughter-in-law who’s a Latina and a 1-year-old grandson who’s Latino, so it’s part of the family. It’s part of who we are.”

Vilsack has not commented recently on the vice presidential race, but USDA released a transcript of his remarks. Earlier this week, Vilsack’s communications director, Matt Herrick, told The Hagstrom Report that “questions about political campaigns should be directed to the appropriate campaign.”

Two other candidates for vice president said to be on Clinton’s short list are Labor Secretary Tom Perez, whose ancestors came from the Dominican Republic, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who speaks Spanish fluently. F

–The Hagstrom Report