WASHINGTON - Former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday, June 7, said he is endorsing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in her Senate campaign against Rep. Kevin Cramer, calling her a "fighter and a good spokesperson" for North Dakota's farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama from 2009-17. He now serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

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Vilsack spoke via phone on Thursday and said supporting Heitkamp was not a political-party decision. Vilsack, like Heitkamp, is a Democrat. He previously endorsed President Donald Trump's selection of Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary.

Instead, Vilsack said Heitkamp's understanding of trade and her support of rural America led him to lend his voice to her campaign.

Vilsack said when he was at the helm of the U.S. Department Agriculture, Heitkamp "never hesitated to bend my ear" when she felt something at the agency was not helping farmers and ranchers.

On trade, he said, Heitkamp understands that there's a "right way and a wrong way" to approach trade negotiations and that taking actions that inspire retaliation are the wrong way. He added that Heitkamp also has let the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., David McNaughton, know that changes are needed in the North American Free Trade Agreement in regard to the dairy industry.

Vilsack said he wants to see people in the Senate who can advocate for and educate their colleagues about rural America.

"I care deeply about rural America. Rural America needs champions in the halls of Congress and the Senate and executive branch offices," he said. "I put Heidi at the top of the list of people who care deeply and passionately about rural places."

"Secretary Tom Vilsack has been a distinguished voice for rural America throughout his career, and I'm grateful for his support in this campaign," Heitkamp said in a statement.