The race for Louisiana agriculture commissioner is typically a lower-profile affair than elections for governor and some other statewide offices.
But this year, the office has become an unlikely arena for some prominent national issues — like climate change, marijuana laws and the U.S. trade war with China — that have received little play in Louisiana's elections.
Republican Mike Strain, who assumed office in 2008 after ending the 28-year reign of Bob Odom, is facing four challengers. They include three Democrats, Marguerite Green, Charlie Greer and Peter Williams, and one Republican, Bradley Zaunbrecher.
Strain was elected as a reform candidate against Odom, who had been targeted in a long-running criminal investigation that was ultimately dropped. Since then, Strain has positioned himself as an efficient administrator, lifting the sprawling Agriculture and Forestry Department out of mountains of debt and doing more with less.
And while Strain is considered a strong favorite to win reelection, that reputation is beset by multiple high-profile storylines that have emerged in recent years. His office is at the center of a tumultuous U.S. trade war that has crippled Louisiana’s soybean farmers. He was thrown into the mix of the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry as chief regulator of the state’s two growers, and critics have heaped blame upon him for repeated delays in the program.
Strain has defended himself, saying the blame for the marijuana delays is misplaced. The Legislature set up the program to include layers of bureaucracy, and Strain says he was merely following the rules. He has also defended President Donald Trump's administration’s handling of international trade, saying the U.S. needs to take a strong stance toward China. He points to subsidies the Trump administration has doled out to farmers across the country, including in Louisiana, to help make up for some of the losses in exports of crops like soybeans.
The budget cuts he has made at the agency — criticized by some of his opponents — are touted by Strain as evidence he has saved taxpayers money. While the number of employees has fallen from more than 1,000 to 540, he said, the agency is still getting results, like fewer forest fires.
“We’ve become efficient in every area possible,” Strain said.
Strain has also emerged as a rare prominent Republican in Louisiana discussing the damage climate change is doing to the state, saying humans need to be “part of the solution.”
He said he supports changing feed for cattle to reduce methane emissions, as well as moving toward carbon neutrality through farming practices and waste management. He said he is working with other states' agriculture commissioners to find best practices for addressing climate change.
A Covington veterinarian and former state representative, Strain is considered a strong favorite, with a campaign war chest that dwarfs those of his opponents. His $625,850 is 35 times the amount of the candidate with the second-most cash on hand.
The Democratic Party has endorsed all three Democrats in the race, while the Republican Party is backing Strain.
Here are the challengers to Strain in the Oct. 12 primary:
Green, a 31-year-old farmer and executive director of the farmer training and advocacy group Sprout Nola, is running on a platform of addressing climate change, legalizing recreational marijuana and expanding local food production.
Bigger agricultural operations, especially those producing row crops like soybeans that are exported, have long held more of the political clout than the small farmers, Green said. She is calling for increased aid for food-producing farmers and also believes Louisiana needs to stem the loss of youth in the agriculture industry, in part by making it easier for them to buy land to farm.
Green is also one of the few candidates running in Louisiana who calls climate change a “crisis” and is advocating specific policies to combat it. The agriculture commissioner needs to work to expand local food access and embrace agricultural programs to reduce emissions if the state is going to be prepared to address climate change, she said.
“Climate change is in my opinion the water that we swim in, and if we don’t address it, it’s going to impact every industry,” she said.
Green said the state should expand cover-cropping, a well-established practice to build soil health, prevent erosion and sequester carbon in the soil, as well as expand access to food from local farms to help address emissions.
She also advocates for legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use, as a way to help farmers and also bring in state revenue, and says Louisiana should expunge records for people convicted of marijuana crimes.
“We need to have a free market for cannabis in this state so farmers can grow it and make a living doing so,” Green said.
Green had more cash on hand in the most recent reporting period than any other challenger to Strain, at $17,808, but trailed the incumbent’s war chest dramatically. She said she hopes to turn out young people to vote and encourage young people to run for political office.
Greer, who worked for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry for more than two decades before retiring six years ago, ran against Strain in the last election on a promise to undo dramatic budget cuts made by Strain.
Since that race, where Strain won with 58% of the vote in the primary, to Greer’s 30%, he said he’s been campaigning continuously for this election, and is running on many of the same ideas.
Greer said Strain is overplaying the dire state of his budget upon taking office, and he accuses him of doing too little to seek more money from the Legislature. A former head of forest enforcement, Greer said Strain has been lucky to have several wet seasons, but he warned the agency’s shoestring budget is ill-equipped to handle a spate of wildfires.
He likens Strain to former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who made repeated budget cuts as the state faced numerous budget shortfalls. Greer said the agriculture department has been “decimated.” He also accused Strain of slow-walking the regulation of medical marijuana.
“The situation down there is a lot more dire than what he tends to tell everyone it is,” he said. “There’s going to have to be rebuilding.”
Strain said it is “simply not true” that budget cuts have gone too far, saying the agency is still fulfilling all of its duties, which include checking gas pumps and measuring devices as well as fighting arson of timberlands.
Greer said he would rebuild the “core existence” of the agency if elected. He said money won’t win the race, and he intends to mobilize a grass-roots base of supporters to advance to a runoff with Strain. He had less than $5,000 cash on hand as of September.
Williams, a Pointe Coupee Parish tree farmer, said he wants to put a heavy emphasis on Louisiana’s nascent industrial hemp program, which was legalized this past legislative session and is awaiting regulatory action from the federal government.
“Industrialized hemp, if implemented right … would create equity for all of the farmers,” Williams said. “That would be a great asset for the state of Louisiana.”
If elected, Williams said he would be less stringent on regulating LSU and Southern University over the medical marijuana program. He would seek more federal funding to help loggers hurt by flooding, and would try to loosen transportation regulations on them.
The state needs to do a better job of including minorities, women and disabled veterans, he said, and if elected he would seek out more federal funding that would provide services to those groups.
Williams has run for Congress twice and for the U.S. Senate in 2016, never garnering more than 2% of the vote. He said those losses helped him gain name recognition and set him up to win this race.
He has not filed any campaign finance reports in the race and said he has not raised money yet, but hopes to prove wrong people who say money is needed to win elections.
Zaunbrecher is the only Republican challenging Strain for the post, and as a political novice, he said he is mainly hoping to set the stage for a run at the job in 2023.
An Egan rice, crawfish and cattle farmer, Zaunbrecher said he decided to run in part because of the loss of young farmers. If elected, he said, he would expand access to loans for young farmers to encourage them to enter the industry.
Zaunbrecher said he does not intend to spend any money on the race.