Sam Clovis’ nomination to be the US Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist was jettisoned the other week in the wake of news about his connection to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (not to mention his gross lack of qualifications for the job), but another Iowan, the state’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, is still awaiting a confirmation vote to become the USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
Northey, who served as an agricultural policy adviser for the Trump campaign, also has deep ties to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, former Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter — a fellow Trump ag adviser who hailed his victory as “a really positive feeling about a change in the direction of the country” — and other agribusiness heavy hitters who have fought against stronger water quality regulations and shut out critical academic perspectives at Iowa State University.
Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of ISU’s agriculture and life sciences college who will take the reins as ISU’s 16th president on Nov. 20, has been a key player in this agribiz network, helping draft a Rastetter-backed memorandum of understanding preventing the Harkin Institute from conducting independent agricultural research at the university and ultimately forcing its relocation to Drake University, stifling dissenting viewpoints at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, serving on the board of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa — the organization that secretly funded the legal defense against the Des Moines Water Works water pollution lawsuit — and even attacking a student in the pages of the student newspaper for daring to criticize Monsanto’s influence at the university.
It’s little surprise, then, that although Wintersteen and her husband, lucid dreaming guru Robert Waggoner, have contributed only a small amount of money to political campaigns, 80 percent of what they’ve given since 2005 — $3,000 — has gone to Bill Northey. All but $100 of their Northey donations were given in Waggoner’s name.
Other major players in Wintersteen’s agribiz network have also given generously to the Trump USDA nominee. Between August 2009 and September 2013, overlapping with his tenure on the Board of Regents, Rastetter dumped $25,000 into Northey’s coffers. Kevin Kimle, the director of the ag college’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative and Rastetter Endowed Chair in Agricultural Entrepreneurship in the economics department, who received a shout-out from Wintersteen during her presidential candidate forum in October, has given Northey $1,700 since 2005. Roger Underwood, the co-founder of Ames-based seed business Becker Underwood that was purchased by BASF in 2012 for $1.02 billion, who founded the entrepreneurship initiative, has given Northey $17,300 since 2006. And Joel Brinkmeyer, a fellow Ames resident and CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, has ponied up another $1,000 since 2013.
The contributions help illustrate the nexus between industry and political power in Iowa, and its influence over the state’s higher education, that now reaches all the way to Trump’s White House thanks to Northey, Rastetter, former Gov. Terry Branstad — now Trump’s ambassador to China — and other GOP power players in the state willing to overlook the president’s many alarming flaws in pursuit of their own career advancement.
The connections also suggest that Wintersteen will likely continue to elevate the perspective of the Farm Bureau and other agribiz industry interests over competing views at ISU when she takes over as president, to the further detriment of Iowa’s environment. Northey, like Rastetter, has already helped achieve this, with Wintersteen playing a role. When ISU’s ag college partnered with Northey’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to develop a nutrient reduction strategy at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, Northey helped to ensure that the plan mirrored Farm Bureau talking points and avoided mandatory regulations. Environmental experts were shut out of the process, DNR officials complained that they were too, and even the EPA expressed frustration over the Department of Ag’s secrecy, as revealed in emails obtained by the Des Moines Register.
The other campaign contributions Wintersteen and Waggoner have made include $100 to Republican Chet Hollingshead, the former Boone County supervisor who later made news for mocking opponents of a new hog confinement. The rest of their donations have gone to Democrats: Waggoner gave $100 to Jon Murphy, who ran unsuccessfully for state auditor in 2010; $100 to former Riverside state Rep. Sally Stutsman; and $250 to Ames resident Cindy Paschen, who challenged state Sen. Herman Quirmbach — a popular target of ire among conservatives — in the 2014 primary. Wintersteen gave $100 to Wayne Clinton, a Democrat who stepped down from the Story County Board of Supervisors in 2016 only to launch a last-ditch independent bid in a failed effort to prevent Lauris Olson from joining the board after she defeated Reno Berg in the primary.
Northey’s confirmation vote at the USDA is being held up by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a critic of the Renewable Fuel Standard who wants Trump to confer with senators from Big Oil states before the nomination process proceeds. Cruz’s interference recently led Sonny Perdue, the Confederate-sympathizing US Agriculture Secretary, to joke that he had a “Free Bill Northey” T-shirt on under his suit.