President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden has spent some of the first 12 days of his presidency assembling the teams that will take charge of rural community development, conservation, land management, and more.

Since many of the appointees are familiar to members of the Rural Assembly, that’s where we started in rounding up thoughts about Biden’s rural appointments. (The Rural Assembly is a project of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.)

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack will be returning to the post he held during the Obama administration. During the Obama years, Biden and Vilsack were both part of the White House Rural Council, a cabinet-level initiative Barack Obama created to coordinate rural programs across departments. Whether there might be a similar structure in the Biden White House remains to be seen, but there has been political commentary along those lines.

Regardless, Vilsack will inherit a department much changed since he left USDA in 2017.

Ben Lilliston, director of rural and climate strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, headquartered in Minnesota, said Vilsack’s agenda will have to include rebuilding the department.  

“The USDA was decimated by the Trump administration, including the attempt to end the under secretary for rural development and the decision to physically move two key research agencies [Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture] resulting in a major loss of research capacity,” Lillston said in an email. “Secretary Vilsack knows the department and will rebuild USDA’s capacity and function in the short-term.”

But Lilliston was more skeptical of Vilsack’s interest in addressing complaints about corporate control of the agriculture sector and civil rights complaints. During Vilsack’s previous tenure, the agency was accused of distorting data on discrimination against black farmers when granting access to farm programs. 

“In terms of setting a new course for rural communities, one that isn’t primarily extractive and tied to the interest of often multinational companies, there are reasons to be skeptical that Vilsack will shift much from the Obama years,” said Lilliston.

Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, regional administrator of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice, said she hopes Biden’s appointments in USDA indicate signs of progress on diversity issues.

“These appointments … give a semblance of hope that this administration will pay more than lip service to the rest of the department’s mission to support the health and economic wellbeing of all of rural America, including its most diverse populations,” she said in an email.

Rural Development

One early indication of change at USDA from the Trump administration is the reinstatement of an undersecretary of rural development. Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s USDA secretary, eliminated that position. Filling the undersecretary position requires Senate confirmation. In the meantime, Biden has named Justin Maxson, president of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, as deputy undersecretary for rural development. Before joining the Babcock Foundation, Maxson was executive director of the Mountain Association of Community Economic Development, a nonprofit that focused on economic and community development in Central Appalachia. (Maxson previously served on the board of directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.)

David Lipsetz, president and chief executive officer of the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), said in an email that he’s particularly excited about the appointment of Maxson and Kumar Chandran, senior advisor on nutrition, coming to the USDA.

“They’re both extraordinarily capable, dedicated, honest people who want the best for small towns,” said Lipsetz, who held several rural-development and administrative positions at USDA during the Obama administration.

Chief of Staff

Another person returning to the staff of the USDA is Katharine Ferguson, who has been appointed as the department’s chief of staff. Ferguson served as chief of staff of USDA Rural Development early in the Obama administration, then moved to the White House to serve as a policy advisor, chief of staff of the Domestic Policy Council, and special assistant to the president. For the past two years, she has been associate director of the Community Strategies Group at Aspen Institute.

“Katharine Ferguson is as good as they come,” said Lipsetz. “Whip-smart and a consensus builder. Great traits for a chief of staff.”

Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, echoed Lipsetz’ sentiments and noted the appointees’ connections to rural advocacy networks like the Rural Assembly, which Coe coordinates.

“It feels good to see sincere and experienced rural advocates like Katharine [Ferguson], Justin [Maxson] … make this list,” Coe said. Ferguson previously advised the Rural Assembly, and Maxson was a member of the Rural Strategies board during the formation of the Rural Assembly.

Coe also singled out Stefanie Feldman, who has been named senior advisor to the White House Domestic Policy Council. Feldman is also a former Rural Strategies board member and was a Daily Yonder intern in 2007.

The experience of Biden appointees in the rural nonprofit sector will be good for rural communities, Coe said.

“I think the opportunity is there for these folks to reach back into their rural networks and knowledge-base to craft a national rural agenda that meets the moment and the need,” she said.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; 
Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture;
Katharine Ferguson was named Chief of Staff in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently, Ferguson served as Associate Director of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group; 
Olugbenga Ajilore was named Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Rural Development. Previously, Ajilore served as a senior economist at the Center for American Progress and former president of the National Economic Association; 
Robert Bonnie was named Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Senior Advisor, Climate, in the Office of the Secretary;
Sara Bleich, Ph.D. was named Senior Advisor, Covid-19, in the Office of the Secretary;
Kumar Chandran was named Senior Advisor, Nutrition, in the Office of the Secretary. Most recently, Chandran was Policy Director for FoodCorps and led the Washington, D.C. office;
Justo Robles was named White House Liaison in the Office of the Secretary. Prior to joining USDA, Robles served as Georgia Deputy Coalitions Director for Biden for President;
Justin Maxson, CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, has been named Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development. Maxson served as the CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which funds anti-poverty and economic justice work in the South. He is the former president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a community development organization based in Berea, Kentucky;
Kelliann Blazek, Special Assistant for Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Formerly she ran the Wisconsin Office of Rural Prosperity.

Economic Advisors

A new cadre of economic advisors, in the White House and beyond, also indicates that community and family issues will get attention from the new administration, said Mil Duncan, a rural policy expert with years of experience in academia, philanthropy, and policy analysis. She said the appointments of Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey to the White House Council of Economic Advisors were positive developments.

Bernstein was an economic advisor to Biden during the Obama administration and was most recently a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington D.C. think tank. Boushey’s work has focused on the relationship of economic inequality and economic growth. She was president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

“Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey are important policy thinkers with deep experience who focus on what working families need to thrive, again, signaling attention to proven policy advances that help working families be successful in America today,” said Duncan in an email. “I know Bernstein appreciates the need for those policies to work for rural families and workers.”

Lilliston noted that “the circle of economic advisors that have been appointed reaffirm strong support for public investment and we can expect that rural communities will benefit.” He said the economic advisors will matter especially when the administration moves from pandemic response to recovery, recognizing “the public benefits that public spending can bring if done the right way, with local input and ownership.”

Lipsetz also singled out another economist, Olugbenga Ajilore, who will serve as a senior advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Rural Development. The work of Ajilore, who was a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, “captures exactly what this economy has done to small-town life,” Lipsetz said.

Niel Ritchie, Senior Advisor at the Main Street Project based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, echoed Lillston’s opinions, saying in an email that the appointees he’s familiar with indicate a “preference for progressive, experienced bureaucratic hands, with a high value placed on  people who can hit the ground running.”

WHITE HOUSE COUNCILS

Council of Economic Advisors
Cecilia Rouse as Chair of the CEA;
Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey as members; 
National Policy Council
Susan Rice, Chair;
Stefanie Feldman, member;
Council on Environmental Quality
Brenda Mallory, Chair 
Most recently director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

United States Department of Interior (DOI)

Another federal agency with an outsized influence on rural lives is the Department of Interior. Through agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, DOI manages over 245 million acres of public lands. It also oversees natural resources and is responsible for the federal relationship with the tribal nations.

U.S DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR

Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior;
Robert Anderson, Principal Deputy Solicitor;
Bob Anderson is a law professor with extensive experience in American Indian law, public land, and water law. He is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe;
Travis Annatoyn, Deputy Solicitor for Energy and Mineral Resources;
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, Deputy Solicitor for Indian Affairs
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior and as Interim Director of the Bureau of Indian Education;
Martha Williams, Principal Deputy Director, Fish and Wildlife Service;
Maria (Camille) Touton, Deputy Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation;
Tanya Trujillo, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Water and Science;
Laura Daniel Davis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Land and Minerals Management;
Shannon Estenoz, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Fish and Wildlife and Parks;
Marissa Knodel, Advisor, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

In a historic appointment, President Biden nominated Debra Haaland, U.S. representative from New Mexico and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, as Interior secretary. She would be the first Native woman to hold this office.

“Nominating Congresswoman Haaland to lead Interior shows that the new administration wants an expert in the everyday business of DOI and a government to fully reflect the people it serves,” said Lipsetz. “For [the Housing Assistance Council], it’s particularly exciting to have a member of the Laguna Pueblo as the tribe is a partner and grantee in our Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.”

Other Agencies 

There are many more agencies and posts that will influence rural policy over the course of this administration. Below we present a selection of a few more we think are of note:

  • The new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head, Michael Regan, comes to the position after managing the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina. He is also believed to be a strong supporter of an aggressive approach towards climate change.
  • Jenn Jones, formerly with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, will become chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which manages numerous programs that affect rural communities. Lipsetz said Jones “knows what it’s like to come from a rural state, go to school in a small town and get things done in that big urban-focused department.” While working together at HUD during the Obama presidency, Lipsetz described her as a fair compromise-builder. “She is well-known and appreciated by tribal leaders for her work on NAHASDA [Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996],” he added.
  • The Department of Energy (DOE) announced several appointments to key policy positions. The selected experts indicate that the agency is retooling its brain trust to address climate and environmental justice issues. 
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Shalanda H. Baker,
Deputy Director for Energy Justice
Shalanda H. Baker was most recently a professor of law, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University. She was the co-founder and co-director of the Initiative for Energy Justice, which provides technical law and policy support to communities on the front lines of climate change; 
Shara Mohtadi, Chief of Staff, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy;
Shara Mohtadi has focused her career advising policymakers and international organizations on mitigating climate change and advancing clean energy policies. She most recently led America’s Pledge initiative and managed grants focused on the coal to clean energy transition in Asia and Australia at Bloomberg Philanthropies. 
Kelly Speakes-Backman, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
Kelly Speakes-Backman most recently served as the first CEO of the Energy Storage Association, the national trade organization for the energy storage industry; 
Shuchi Talati, Chief of Staff, Office of Fossil Energy
Shuchi Talati was most recently a Senior Policy Advisor at Carbon180 where she focused on policies to build sustainable and equitable technological carbon removal at scale;
Jennifer Wilcox, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy
Jennifer Wilcox was most recently the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute. Wilcox’s work examines the nexus of energy and the environment, developing strategies to minimize negative climate impacts associated with society’s dependence on fossil fuels;
Wahleah Johns, Director of the Indian Energy Office. 

The Daily Yonder will update this article as new information becomes available.