JEFFERSON CITY — Two months after a sexual harassment scandal forced Gov. Matt Blunt to ask for the resignation of the Agriculture Department director, Blunt has nominated a 29-year-old to be the first female Agriculture Director in Missouri history.
Katie Smith was announced as Blunt’s choice Wednesday. She’ll serve as the new director, pending approval by the Senate next week.
Smith has most recently served as the deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Energy’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Smith is a graduate of MU and has worked for various governmental departments and three different Republican federal legislators.
She has supervisory experience within the U.S. Department of Energy and in the offices of fossil energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy and electricity. Smith also managed legislative operations and supervised staff for U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.
Smith said she is honored to be nominated for the position.
“I grew up on a farm in Platte County, Missouri, and I’m very proud of my production agriculture background,” she said. “If confirmed by the Senate, I’ll look forward to advancing this administration’s initiatives for the state’s largest economic engine by promoting the use and production of biodiesel, building on the branded-beef initiative and increasing the number of dairies in the state.”
Blunt asked for the resignation of former Director Fred Ferrell on Feb. 26 after allegations arose that Ferrell denied employee Heather Elder a promotion because of her gender and made inappropriate comments toward various female employees. The Agriculture Department has a pending lawsuit against Elder after she refused to accept a settlement and resign.
Blunt was criticized by Democrats and Republican state Treasurer Sarah Steelman for waiting nine months after the allegations arose to call for Ferrell’s resignation.
Blunt did not specifically address whether Smith’s gender had an impact on his decision, but said: “I want somebody that’s a professional, somebody that is a good manager. I think that we have that. Somebody that understands how important it is to have a workplace that values all employees and treats them with respect and dignity.”
One of Blunt’s harshest critics in his handling of the situation has been House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who sent a letter to the Republican speaker of the house asking to create a special committee regarding sexual harassment after the Ferrell scandal.
Harris called the nomination of a woman director “a positive step,” but said there will is a lot of work left to do in the Agriculture Department.
“I don’t know her. I will, at this time, give her the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that she’s a good choice to lead the Ag Department,” Harris said. “I think Katie Smith is walking into a situation that, because of the governor’s mismanagement, is going to be a challenging one.”
Both Harris and Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said on Wednesday they believe the lawsuit against Elder should be dropped.