By MARY CLARE JALONICK
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
WASHINGTON — Charles Conner, the Agriculture Department official picked to become acting secretary upon the departure of Mike Johanns, has worked on farm issues in Washington for more than two decades.
Conner became deputy agriculture secretary in 2005. Before that he was a White House farm adviser and president of the Corn Refiners Association. He also worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee for 12 years, most of that time as staff director.
A native of Indiana, Conner grew up on a farm that remains in his family.
Conner assumes the job as Congress is writing the next farm bill. The House passed its version of the multi-billion-dollar legislation in June, but negotiations have hit bumps in the Senate.
Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the transition should be smooth with Conner at the helm, since he has been involved in the process so far.
Johanns, who announced his resignation Thursday and is expected to run for the U.S. Senate, strenuously objected to the House farm bill. He argued that Congress should put stronger limits on payments to wealthy farmers. The White House issued a veto threat.
“I think the farm bill is an administration position, not a Mike Johanns position,” Thatcher said.
Thatcher and Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, praised Conner’s experience.
“I think (Conner) will be very positive for the process because of his knowledge of all of the intricacies of farm policy,” Buis said. “He’s very well liked on Capitol Hill.”
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democratic member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he has known Conner for a long time and has always liked him, even if he hasn’t always agreed with him.
“He is somebody who will be respected in the discussions,” Conrad said.
Still, Conrad said it is distracting to change leadership in the middle of a farm bill.
“For the secretary to walk away in the middle of a farm bill borders on irresponsible,” Conrad said.
Several state officials said that Johanns is expected to seek the Senate seat being vacated at the end of next year by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.