WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday nominated Edward Schafer, a former two-term Republican governor from North Dakota, to lead the Agriculture Department, which is hoping to influence the outcome of a new five-year farm bill.
"At every stage of his career, Ed has shown wisdom, foresight and creativity," Bush said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "Those same qualities will make him a valuable member of my Cabinet and they will make him a trusted friend to America's farmers and ranchers. His passion for agriculture has deep roots."
Schafer, who chose not to run for governor again in North Dakota in 2000, will replace Mike Johanns, who resigned as U.S. agriculture secretary last month to launch a bid for the Nebraska Senate seat being vacated by Republican Chuck Hagel at the end of next year.
Filling the cabinet
Schafer, the grandson of Danish immigrants who farmed throughout their lives, gained extensive agricultural experience while serving as governor, from 1992 to 2000, in a state where nearly 25 percent of its residents work as farmers and ranchers or are employed in farm-related jobs.
He was elected to his first term by a margin of 17 percent and was re-elected to a second term four years later by a margin of 32 percent, becoming the first Republican governor elected to a second term in North Dakota since the 1950s.
"I realize that the mission of this agency goes far beyond the services delivered to the preservation of a way of life that I believe is the foundation of this country," Schafer said.
It was the second Cabinet post vacancy Bush has filled in two days. On Tuesday, Bush nominated retired Army Lt. Gen. James Peake to direct the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, which is strained by the influx of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.
Key time for farm bill
Schafer's selection comes at a crucial time for the Agriculture Department, which is closely following - and hoping to influence - congressional negotiations on a new five-year farm bill. There had been speculation that Bush would keep Charles Conner, the acting secretary and former deputy secretary, in place so the department would not face reshuffling until the farm bill was signed by the president.
The administration has staunchly opposed congressional efforts to keep current farm programs, including billions of dollars in annual crop subsidies to farmers, in place. Under Johanns, Bush threatened to veto the House version of the legislation. The Senate is scheduled to debate its version of the $288 billion bill next week.
"With Ed's leadership, we will work with Congress to pass a farm bill that provides farmers with a safety net, protects our lands and the environment, and spends federal tax dollars wisely," Bush said.
The White House highlighted Schafer's experience in directing state response to eight disasters, including the historic flooding and fire in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997, which led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of North Dakota residents.
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As governor, Schafer launched a pilot project using high-speed telecommunications services to deliver education, health care and economic development to help revive small rural towns. He also led an agricultural trade mission from North Dakota to China in 2000 to help open new markets for North Dakota farm products and oversaw initial development of North Dakota's biofuel industries.
Schafer, a businessman with little political experience, ran both of his successful campaigns for governor on themes of job creation and lessening North Dakota's dependence on energy production and agriculture.
He was president of the Gold Seal Co., a household products company founded by his father, Harold Schafer, before the company was sold in 1986.
Schafer later founded Fish 'N Dakota, a fish farming business, which used waste heat from a nearby power plant to raise tilapia. The fish was shipped live to restaurants and other customers.
The business had financial difficulties - including overdue property tax payments, creditor lawsuits and a $326,204 loan write-off at the Bank of North Dakota - that provided a stream of unflattering headlines during much of Schafer's first term. At the time, he was chairman of the Bank of North Dakota's board of directors.
He repaid the loan two years after it was written off in December 1993, and settled his remaining creditor disputes.
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