Ag Policy Blog

CoBank CEO Makes 11th Hour Bid for Ag Secretary

By Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent

Robert Engel, CEO of CoBank, the Denver-based cooperative bank, is throwing his hat in the ring to be considered by President-elect Donald Trump for Agriculture secretary.

Engel told DTN political correspondent Jerry Hagstrom in a telephone interview on Monday that he worked in real-estate banking in New York and at one time was Trump's banker, but Engel has lost touch with Trump since Engel joined CoBank in 2000. Engel is now using media interviews to try to get Trump's attention for an interview.

Engel said he was Trump's banker in the 1990s. "Trump knows me; he trusts me. He knows I went to CoBank, he doesn't know what CoBank is," Engel said.

It is unclear what has caused a delay in naming the Agriculture secretary. The president-elect has met with a parade of candidates over the past month. It was expected Trump would name the position late last week, but then more potential candidates were seen visiting Trump Tower in New York.

Engel is asking Trump to consider him after working with the Obama administration and supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

At the urging of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Engel led CoBank to invest $10 million in 2014 in a U.S. Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund through which private entities can invest in job-creating rural infrastructure projects including hospitals, schools, other educational facilities, rural water and wastewater systems, energy projects, broadband expansion and local and regional food systems.

"I have been a Republican all my life, but jumped on the Clinton bandwagon" after Vilsack said that he could at least get him the job of deputy secretary if not secretary in a Clinton administration, Engel said.

"Vilsack wanted me to follow him" because of his broad experience in rural America, which included an investment fund that Vilsack encouraged. Vilsack told him, 'I can't promise you the top job, but I am confident I can get you the No. 2 job,'" Engel recalled Monday.

"I've always been interested in public service. I went with them, and my team lost," Engel said, but added he decided he would try to get Trump to consider him because he is 63, has plenty of energy and is concerned that rural America is "an underappreciated asset."

CoBank is a major player in rural America, particularly in financing exports, but Engel noted that "USDA is much broader than agriculture" and that he has experience with public-private partnerships and with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for food stamps.

When he was at HSBC in New York, Engel said, he got involved with the school lunch program, but discovered that the problem was that kids were "famished" when they came to school and after they went home.

American agriculture produces such bounty, he said, that there has to be a way "to incent the right behavior" and get food to the people.

Closing the "digital divide" between urban and rural America so that rural America can participate in innovation is also a priority, Engel said.

Engel said he has "touched base" with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and that even though he is a Republican he has gotten support from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. He said he has also gotten encouragement from Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, a Democratic-leaning farm group.

"The answer is always somewhere in the middle," he said.

If Trump and his team "are looking for qualifications I could be a really good choice," Engel said. "I know I am in the 11th hour. All I want to do is get an interview."

Corp America did a profile on Engel in its December 2016 issue: http://dld.bz/…

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