Profiling Team Romney: Charles Conner

By Holly Jessen | November 01, 2012

Charles Conner’s extensive background in agriculture includes several years in the USDA as deputy secretary of agriculture as well as serving as acting secretary of agriculture from August 2007 to January 2008, when Ed Schafer took on the job. “Those of us who worked in agriculture for many years felt it was a great mistake that Chuck wasn’t made secretary of agriculture at that point,” Otto Doering, a professor the Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics, told Ethanol Producer Magazine.

Today, Conner is one of 11 members of Mitt Romney’s Agriculture Advisory Committee and one of six national chairpersons on the Farmers and Ranchers for Romney Coalition. The rumor is that Conner is under consideration for positions in Romney’s cabinet, according to Heath Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Seton Hall University. Brown wrote about the subject in The Hill’s Congress Blog, published Oct. 23, saying that Romney’s inner circle is “well-staffed with those from the world of lobbying,” also mentioning Jack Gerard and Marion Blakey.

An Oct. 19 National Journal article also concluded that Conner was a possible candidate for USDA agricultural secretary, putting him behind Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam.  An article in The Blaze singled out Conner as a “wild card” candidate for the spot. “He’s a former deputy secretary of agriculture,” the Aug. 29 article said. “He’s a CEO. He’s on Romney’s Agriculture Advisory Committee. He’s a former farmer himself. That covers pretty much the entire checklist.” On contrast, Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Putnam were selected as the safe choice and the exciting choice, respectively.

Conner is a graduate of Purdue and in 1998 received the AgEcon Distinguished Alumni Award. Doering knew of Conner while he was a student but got to know him better while he worked for Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. Conner is even handed and not highly partisan, which will appeal to some but not others, Doering said. He recalled Conner contacting Purdue staff to testify for the U.S. Senate ag committee and the effort he made to find people to provide balanced views from all sides of an issue. “He really knows the sector,” he said, adding that his knowledge of agriculture extends to secondary concerns such as environmental impact, food prices and more.

The Indiana farmer does have some connections to the ethanol industry. He is currently the president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), a position he has held since January 2009. From May 1997 to October 2001 he was president of the Corn Refiners Association, including members Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc. and Tate & Lyle, which also produce ethanol.

NCFC represents nearly 3,000 farmer cooperatives, whose members include the majority of the 2 million farmers and ranchers in the U.S, according to the website. That includes marketing cooperatives, bargaining cooperatives, credit cooperatives and farm supply cooperatives, which includes energy-related co-ops that produce ethanol and biodiesel.  

In April, Conner testified before the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture. He spoke about the importance of USDA rural development programs in helping to ensure continued prosperity in rural communities, including programs to support renewable energy development. “We strongly support reauthorization of these important grant, loan and related programs which research and promote the development and advancement of biofuels and opportunities for biomass, as well as such programs that assist in reaching energy efficiency goals,” he said in his written testimony.

According to an archived USDA press release, Conner spoke to members of the Renewable Fuels Association in October 2007, while he was serving as acting agriculture secretary of the USDA. The USDA’s challenge, he said, was to draft farm policies that would help smooth out the extreme down times and sustain better times. “I believe renewable energy from biofuels are our way of sustaining those good times, not for a year or two, but for a whole generation of producers involved in American agriculture,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series profiling the agricultural and energy advisors to the Romney/Ryan campaign. The previous story in the series is about Gov. Dave Heineman.