Washington

FCC Chairman's Seat Up for Grabs

Julius Genachowski, Larry Strickling among handful of contenders to succeed oft-embattled FCC Chairman Kevin Martin 11/30/2008 03:45:00 AM Eastern

Major departmental shifts are coming left and right in Washington, but one change is of primary interest to broadcasters: the new chairmanship of the FCC.

A handful of contenders have emerged to succeed oft-embattled Chairman Kevin Martin, whose exit is likely by early January. Among those atop the list are a pair of Barack Obama insiders (Julius Genachowski and Larry Strickling) and two more figures with FCC experience (Don Gips and Blair Levin).

Martin has not said when he will depart, and he could technically remain on as a commissioner after a new chairman—an interim chairman at first—is named after President-elect Obama takes the oath Jan. 20.

While being non-committal, Martin joked a couple of weeks ago that possible career moves included being a wardrobe consultant for Janet Jackson and installing DTV-to-analog converter boxes.

Then there was the crack about becoming a NASCAR driver. The FCC-sponsored DTV Transition race car crashed in two of the three races that the commission sponsored.

Now, however, Washington has shifted its focus to who will sit behind the wheel of the FCC itself. Whoever gets the seat, look for that person to put a premium on Internet access, broadband rollout and no more loosening of media ownership rules.

Genachowski, an Obama campaign adviser and friend of the president-elect from Harvard days, is also in line for the new technology czar post Obama plans to create. He was a top staffer to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who is close to the Obama team. Hundt served as a debate surrogate on telecom policy during the campaign, and his son also worked for Obama.

In addition, Genachowski has Internet chops, having both launched an Internet startup and worked for Barry Diller's IAG Interactive collection of Websites.

Genachowski would be a natural choice since he helped draft the Obama campaign's tech policy plan, which some have boiled down to “open government, open networks, open markets,” very likely in that order. But the Obama campaign is expected to invest the tech czar job with real power, which is why Genachowski may opt for that role instead.

Gips is another strong candidate for FCC chairman, according to several FCC-watchers in Washington. He is co-chair of the general agency review process and is a one-time chief of the FCC's International bureau, where he helped oversee spectrum policy.

HUNDT'S PROTÉGÉ

Joining them in the pool of possible candidates is Levin, another Reed Hundt protégé. His odds went up two weeks ago when he, along with Genachowski, was named a team leader on a tech policy working group charged with making policy recommendations for the Obama administration. “I think it's his if he wants it,” said one veteran broadcast lobbyist, who added he thought Levin would make a great chairman. “He knows his stuff.”

And Strickling, another Obama campaign adviser, also helped draft his tech policy plan. He was formerly an FCC bureau chief under Chairman Bill Kennard—yet another Obama media policy adviser.

At least one veteran observer of the comings and goings at the FCC, however, points out that Obama may instead take this opportunity to appoint a minority to the post. One name being floated is Danny Sepulveda, an Hispanic Obama adviser who used to counsel Commerce Committee member Sen. Barbara Boxer on telecom and media issues.

Another Hispanic Obama backer is Henry Rivera, an experienced communications attorney and former FCC commissioner. Rivera was thought to be in line for the tech policy czar post or perhaps the FCC chairmanship, but he may be swept up in the Obama campaign's lobbying crackdown. Rivera has had businesses before the commission in the past couple of years and therefore may not pass muster with the Obama team's guidelines about who can be named to various agency positions.

This has created something of an issue in Washington. Some have complained that the prohibition on folks who have advocated for clients before the commission disqualifies some candidates with the most experience. But Obama advisers have said they will take that risk to remain true to their code.

Karen Kornbluth, policy director for Obama, has also been floated as a possible name. She is former director of legal and intergovernmental affairs at the FCC and also worked on the Senate Commerce Committee staff of Sen. John Kerry, an early backer of the President-elect. The Commerce Committee has oversight of the FCC.

The Obama camp is said to want to put academics in high government places, according to one former top FCC official, which would argue for the two professors the team named to vet the FCC as part of the transition process.

They are Susan Crawford, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former partner at D.C. communications firm Wilmer, Cutler Pickering (WilmerHale); and Kevin Werbach, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

THE WAIT WILL CONTINUE

However the chairmanship shakes out long-term, it will take a while for an Obama FCC to take shape. Deborah Taylor Tate must exit before Jan. 3, which would leave the commission at 2-2. When Chairman Martin exits, it will likely leave a 2-1 commission for a short time. The Obama administration has a lot of people to move in, and the FCC is “pretty far down the line,” says someone intimately familiar with both ends of the vetting and post-filling process. “It could be four to six months.”

Other names that have surfaced include African-American Mignon Clyburn, a South Carolina public service commissioner and daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn; Kathy Wallman, former chief of the Common Carrier bureau under Hundt; and Julia Johnson, who chaired the FCC's diversity committee for digital issues.

Michael Copps is considered the lead candidate for interim chairman. His ex-boss, former Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, was said to be stumping for him earlier this year.

Jonathan Adelstein would like the chairman's job as well, and his ex-boss, former Sen. Tom Daschle, is tight with the Obama campaign. If Adelstein wants another term, he will likely get it, but there could still be three or four openings on the commission in 2009 depending on how things shake out. Commissioner Robert McDowell's term is up in June, though he could stay through the end of the year.

One possible candidate for an open Republican seat is acting NTIA chief Meredith Atwell Baker, who is well-liked on both sides of the aisle.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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