MT. PLEASANT, Iowa — Tom Vilsack's political story already reads like a modern Horatio Alger tale: a humble beginning at an orphanage in Pittsburgh, a rise to governor of Iowa and then to the nation's secretary of agriculture.
Back in Iowa last weekend, Vilsack declined to acknowledge whether he's being considered for another celebrated chapter — as running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But when it came to Republican nominee Donald Trump, he didn't hold back.
“I get really irritated when I hear Donald Trump say, ‘Let's make America great again,’” Vilsack said in an Associated Press interview. “I look at it and I think, wait a second, I started out life in an orphanage. I didn't have a last name. ... America gave me this opportunity to go from that beginning to sitting in the White House in the Cabinet Room with the president of the United States.”
With his Midwestern ties, experience in elected office, policy record in Washington and strong links to rural America, Vilsack could bring some key advantages to the Democratic ticket. His family ties to the Clintons date back to 1972 when his late brother-in-law worked with Hillary Clinton.
“I'm confident that Hillary Clinton is going to have a very, very accomplished, serious, solid running mate who is going to help her lead this country,” Vilsack said. “Who it is, no one knows, but I'm confident of her capacity to pick the right person.”
Vilsack returned Saturday to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the small town where his political career was launched in the 1980s by accident. A disgruntled citizen stormed a City Council meeting and shot and killed the mayor, prompting Vilsack to fill the void.
Born in Pittsburgh, Vilsack was orphaned at birth and raised by adoptive parents. He met his wife, Christie Bell, in college in New York and moved to her hometown of Mt. Pleasant after he finished law school.
Vilsack's two terms as Iowa's governor were a time of hard-fought compromise with at least one, and sometimes both, legislative houses controlled by Republicans. He often touts as successes achieving universal preschool in Iowa, expanded state spending on renewable fuel research and restoring voting rights to felons post-sentence.
“Picking Vilsack would be the antithesis of Trump,” said political consultant Jeff Link, who worked on Vilsack's brief 2008 presidential bid. “He is solid. He is steady. He is experienced.”
Vilsack bonded with the Clintons when Hillary Clinton campaigned for his long-shot bid for governor in 1998. The two later worked together, sharing ideas during the development of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. And in 2005, they teamed up on a domestic policy agenda as leaders with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Vilsack waited in the wings in 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry vetted him as a potential running mate, only to get passed over for then-Sen. John Edwards. He announced his own bid for president in 2006, but dropped out after a few months and threw his support behind Clinton.
Since 2009 he has served as President Barack Obama's agriculture secretary, pushing to revitalize rural America. He has fought to protect food stamps and make school lunches healthier, has sought to expand resources for renewable energy and to resolve civil rights claims against the department.
Vilsack drew criticism in 2010 when he asked a black federal agriculture official for her resignation after a video clip emerged of her saying she didn't do everything she could to help a white farmer. After it became clear the remarks had been taken out of context, Vilsack apologized and asked her to return to the department — an offer she declined. Vilsack's office said that since then the two have worked together on an economic development program.
Some of Vilsack's positions could draw criticism from liberal Democrats. He has supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which is backed by Obama, but party progressives oppose and Clinton has come out against. As governor, he signed legislation in 2002 making English Iowa's official language, drawing criticism from many Hispanics and liberals. Vilsack has expressed regret for signing that measure, passed by a GOP-controlled legislature, in the face of a competitive re-election campaign.
“I do not think that Tom Vilsack would excite the populist, progressive base of the Democratic Party in the way a Elizabeth Warren might, or a Sherrod Brown might or even a Tom Perez,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America.
But those close to Vilsack, including childhood friend Doug Campbell, a Pittsburgh attorney, expressed confidence in his record.
“He's going to stay late and do the homework with the three-ring binders,” Campbell said. “When I was president of student council, he was an excellent vice president.”