WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump intends to nominate former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to serve as agriculture secretary, according to a Kansas farmer and Trump adviser.
Perdue, 70, would be the first Southerner to lead the Agriculture Department in more than two decades. He comes from the small city of Bonaire in rural central Georgia, where he built businesses in grain trading and trucking.
Doug Keesling, a farmer from Chase, Kansas who serves on Trump's agricultural advisory team, praised the announcement.
"I think Sonny will do an excellent job," said Keesling. "His grassroots knowledge of agriculture - he was a veterinarian and has several ag businesses.
"I think this will be a positive for Kansas, being livestock and commodity based," he said, adding Perdue's trade experience is also a boon. Perdue has worked to promote agricultural products from his own state overseas, as well as helped build up the Port of Savanna.
The agriculture secretary job is the last Cabinet position for which Trump hasn't named a candidate.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, also issued a statement about Trump's pick.
"The Secretary of Agriculture serves as an important voice for rural Americans whose very livelihoods often depend on the success or failure of our ag community," Moran said. "Agriculture doesn’t just put food on our tables – the USDA’s role includes providing rural housing services, conducting research to expand our farmers’ production capabilities, promoting American-grown products abroad, giving consumers confidence in our food supply and establishing effective safety nets for our producers.
"Governor Perdue’s years of experience as an advocate for Georgia farmers and ranchers, leadership in the agribusiness sector, and practice as a veterinarian give him a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by rural Americans. I look forward to hearing more from Governor Perdue about his approach and priorities.”
Perdue began his political career as a Democrat in the state Legislature in the 1990s. But it was after switching his allegiance to the Republican Party that Perdue made Georgia history.
In 2002, Perdue was elected the state's first Republican governor since the end of Reconstruction more than 130 years earlier. Perdue's victory over an incumbent Democrat completed Georgia's shift to a solidly Republican state, ending generations of Democratic control of state government.
Despite the seismic political change, Perdue showed little interest in pushing big programs or signature legislation during his two terms. Instead he focused on finding ways to save money while improving customer service by state agencies — such as reducing wait times for renewing driver's licenses. He often referred to himself as Georgia's CEO.
"If I could choose my legacy it would be the epithet that he made government work," Perdue told The Associated Press in 2010 before he left office. "That's really what I've focused on. It's not some big monument."
Critics accused Perdue of failing to tackle some of Georgia's biggest problems, such as struggling public schools.
Perdue didn't rely only on his business acumen as governor. A devout Southern Baptist, he also found a place for faith in his administration. In 2007, when a withering drought gripped Georgia and neighboring states, Perdue held a prayer rally in front of the state Capitol in Atlanta to pray publicly for rain.
It was also Perdue who brought an end to Georgia's longstanding conflicts over a state flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem. The controversial flag was replaced by lawmakers under Perdue's Democratic predecessor, but the new design proved unpopular. Perdue insisted Georgia voters should pick the flag. A referendum was held in 2004, though Southern heritage groups were outraged that the options did not include the old flag with the Confederate symbol.
Under Perdue's watch, Georgia adopted tough new food-safety regulations after a deadly U.S. salmonella outbreak was traced to Georgia-made peanut butter. He moved the state office that issues water permits for irrigation and other agricultural uses from Atlanta to rural south Georgia, where it would be closer to farmers. And Perdue poured millions of state dollars into Go Fish, a program that aimed to lure bass fishing tournaments to the state.
The ex-governor, whose full name is George Ervin Perdue III, grew up in central Georgia. He attended the University of Georgia, where he played football as a walk-on and earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine. Following a stint in the Air Force, Perdue returned to Georgia and settled in Bonaire, a city of about 14,000 people.
Perdue already has family serving in Washington. His cousin, former Dollar General CEO David Perdue of Sea Island, Georgia, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014.
Keesling added he is anxious to see who the undersecretaries will be, including for the Farm Service Agency, food stamp program and the Natural Resource Conservation Program.
"They do a lot of work and that will be very important that we have someone who really understands production agriculture," he said of the undersecretary positions.
Keesling, who has served on Trump’s agricultural advisory team since August, said he met with the Trump administration a few times − including as late as December. Keesling is being considered for a U.S. Department of Agriculture post.
Keesling's name was actually on the site Predict It - which lists of 25 names for the agricultural secretary position. At the top of the list is Perdue. Also making it - Gov. Sam Brownback and former Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp.
Being on the advisory team, Keesling said he and his wife had tickets to Wednesday night's first inaugural ball, but they declined due to conflicts in Kansas.
Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel contributed to this story.