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FCC GOP Seat Up for Grabs?

11/21/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

As South Dakota Dem­ocrat Jonathan Adelstein’s reappointment to the FCC sailed toward confirmation last week, attention turned to a possible Republican vacancy if Kathleen Abernathy decides to exit the commission or the White House asks her to step aside.

Abernathy’s term ended in June, but she is entitled to remain on the commission through next year or until a replacement is confirmed. Although she hasn’t spoken publicly about the matter, it is widely believed that she is ready to return to the private sector.

The leading candidate to replace her is Rebecca Armendariz Klein, the former chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC), who, according to several Washington policy watchers, has strong ties to President Bush. Klein, 39, stepped down from her post last year to run for Congress against Democrat Lloyd Doggett. She was handily defeated by the six-term incumbent and is now looking for another post that would keep her working in Washington with husband Dale, an assistant secretary of defense. She is a major in the Air Force Reserve and served in the first Gulf War.

She also worked as an aide to President Bush when he was Texas governor, serving as a senior attorney and then as director of the office of policy development in the late 1990s. She was named to the state’s PUC in 2001 by Bush’s successor, Rick Perry.

As a Texas regulator, Klein helped to carry out the state’s electric-utility deregulation and lobbied the FCC to preserve state regulators’ power to oversee telecommunications companies. Klein’s appointment could put her at odds with FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who generally has tried to usurp state officials’ authority over new technologies, such as Internet telephone service. Klein hasn’t had any dealings in media issues, and few in the business know much about her.

But her record on the Texas PUC gave her plenty of opportunity for contact with telephone companies, says Scott Cleland, telecom analyst for Washington-based Precursor Advisors. The regional Bell monopolies, which would like to be freed of state regulation to better compete against cable operators’ less-regulated Internet phone services, are “quietly dismayed” by the likelihood of her appointment.

Klein could not be reached for comment last week, but candidates for White House appointments typically avoid commenting to the press until winning confirmation.

Her rival for the job appears to be Earl Comstock, who represents Earthlink and Yahoo for Washington law firm Sher & Blackwell. Comstock is a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is the incoming chairman of the Commerce Committee. Stevens’ committee oversees the FCC and must approve all agency commissioners. A Comstock appointment would worry cable operators, because he has lobbied on behalf of Internet service providers in the fight to be carried on cable systems’ broadband platforms. Cable operators insist they have no obligation to carry rival services.

Other potential candidates include Michael Gallagher, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Janice Obuchowski, a telecommunications consultant. But a candidate’s odds can change quickly. Adelstein’s chances for a second term were written off immediately after his chief sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), lost his re-election bid. But the elevation of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), another mentor, to minority leader, along with goodwill among other senators, was enough to ensure his name would be added to a list of 85 nominations that Congress was set to approve before leaving town for the Thanksgiving holiday.

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