Ag chairman maximizes position to serve her state

Susan Walsh/Associated Press Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 9, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She will lead the Senate Agriculture Committee, replacing Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, pictured behind her, who was named chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Lincoln brings Arkansas flavor to Senate committee

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee this fall, a reporter asked if she expected the chairmanship to help her 2010 re-election campaign.

"I certainly hope so," she said. A prominent political analyst said that the value of the chairmanship to Lincoln's re-election chances would depend on whether she can convince Arkansas her new power is of benefit to the state.

Most analysts have said Lincoln potentially faces a tough race, although she does not yet have a clear Republican competitor.

Early indications are that Lincoln is doing everything in her power to maximize the chairmanship for Arkansas.

Exactly what Lincoln may do with her newfound power is unclear. The only farm-related legislation she has introduced so far is a disaster program to help farmers with recent flooding in the state.

She has said she wants to help assure a future for the U.S. cotton industry, which has declined in acreage in the face of low world prices and constant international attacks on its subsidy programs.

On Nov. 23, Lincoln held the committee's first field hearing since she assumed the chairmanship. It was in Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital, in the Great Hall of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

Three panels provided an opportunity for 13 Arkansas agriculture and rural leaders to testify on "Revitalizing Rural America."

Lincoln has also taken other actions to make the Agriculture Committee more Arkansas-oriented. Lincoln has named Robert Holifield, a native Arkansan who was chief of staff at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as committee staff director. She has also hired other new committee staffers and diminished the roles of staffers hired by former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

At a Nov. 17 Agriculture committee hearing on the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, all the witnesses except Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came from Arkansas. The witnesses demonstrated the breadth of Arkansas nutrition interests by including anti-hunger advocates and the director of compliance for Walmart, an Arkansas-based company.

On Nov. 18 Lincoln's campaign announced that she had formed a "Lincoln Ag Team, a group of Arkansas voters who support the senator's commitment to rural development, southern agriculture and farm families.

The team includes a former Arkansas Farm Bureau president, a former National Cotton Council chairman, rice, fish and produce farmers and Archie Schaffer, executive vice president for corporate affairs at Tyson's Foods.

"Sen. Lincoln has been advocate for Arkansas agriculture her entire career. I am proud to support an Arkansan who has worked tirelessly to protect our state's poultry industry and to promote Arkansas agriculture to the world," Schaffer said in a news release.

Most states have lost so much rural population that the electoral value of the Agriculture chairmanship is limited. But in Arkansas more people live in rural areas than in most states.

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