Regulation speculation

Names floated for next FCC chair

The spoils system might not be what it was when Sen. William Marcy, D-N.Y., inadvertently gave it its name in his 1832 "To the victor go the spoils" speech, but patronage still is an important power for the president as he or she places men and women in positions across the capital from the Pentagon to the FCC's offices in the Portals.

While commission appointments might not be the plum posts for presidential job-seekers, the person selected has a wide latitude in setting the telecommunications agenda for what is one of the most important government positions in the "knowledge economy." Even as there are still three candidates vying to be leader of the free world, it's not too early to begin speculation on who would be chairman of the FCC.

If Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., takes the prize, Susan Ness is the name bandied about among the tele-cognoscenti. Ness, a former commissioner, has strong ties to the Clintons. She was a fundraiser and former campaign worker for President Clinton and has continued in that role actively campaigning for the senator. She has been named a "Hill Raiser" for raising more than $100,000 for Clinton and has been active in her campaign.

Ness had a shot at taking over the commission when former chairman Reed Hundt left in 1997, but she was passed over when former FCC general counsel Bill Kennard was tapped as the first black chairman of the panel.

Aside from being close to the Clintons, Ness makes an attractive candidate for the commission's top job as it would allow the first female president to select the first female FCC chairman. Ness was considered a reliable vote for Hundt at first, but she chafed under the domineering chairman's rule.

"It's funny on the Democratic side, you hear all these names being thrown around for Obama, but there's really only Ness for Clinton," said one industry source.

While the who-will-be-chairman game is relatively easy under a Hillary-wins scenario, it gets more complicated if her Democratic rival takes the nomination and the White House.

If Illinois Sen. Barack Obama wins, his campaign and Senate staffs are dotted with people who have close ties to the FCC. Connecting those dots, however, is Julius Genachowski, a former aide to Hundt and Kennard and a close friend of Obama's since they attended Harvard Law School. He is a major fundraiser for the senator and introduced him to Hundt, Kennard and their followers.

Aside from commission experience, Genachowski was an executive at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp and a managing director at digital media specialist Rock Creek Ventures and is a special adviser to the private-equity group General Atlantic.

"He got a lot of people interested in him early on," said Blair Levin, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus who was a top adviser to Hundt. "There are a lot of people there that would be terrific choices, just as there are in the other campaigns."

Levin has also been mentioned as a possibility, but he dodged the question when asked if he wanted the job.

It's unclear whether Genachowski wants the job either as some think he could end up in the White House itself.

Other names associated with Obama include his policy director Karen Kornbluh, who also worked at the commission under Hundt and Kennard, and Don Gipps, an FCC veteran who was former Vice President Al Gore's domestic policy adviser and is now a top executive at Level 3, an Internet "backbone" operator.

Larry Stcikling, a former chief of the FCC Common Carrier Bureau and an Obama campaign worker, also has been mentioned for the post.

The two Democrats on the FCC — Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein — also can't be ruled out. Copps has been on the commission the longest and has the highest profile as he has been an outspoken opponent of media consolidation and is well liked by Capitol Hill Democrats. Adelstein also has ties to Obama: His former boss former, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, is an Obama backer.

Some of the chatter surrounding the two commissioners suggests that Copps might end up as interim chairman serving as a bridge between current Republican chair Kevin Martin and a Democratic president's own choice.

If Arizona Sen. John McCain wins, the scenario plays out much differently. McCain has an intimate knowledge of the commission, having served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee for six years. As head of the Senate committee with oversight of the panel, he knows more about its inner workings than either Clinton or Obama.

"He would be the first former Commerce Committee president," said one industry source. "He will probably have more of an interest in what the FCC does than any president since the agency was created."

Names floating around include former McCain staffer and current Disney lobbyist Bill Bailey, Google counsel Pablo Chavez and FCC staffer Maureen McLaughlin.

Bailey has told friends that he is not interested in the job. But that might just be smart politicking because it is considered unseemly to be seen angling for a job in an administration before the votes have been counted.

Others mentioned include Rick Davis, the campaign manager for McCain 2008, and Charles Black, a top political adviser to McCain's campaign. Black is a lobbyist who counts AT&T among his clients, while Davis has lobbied for Verizon and SBC.

Being a lobbyist and a McCain supporter might not be the best path to a powerful Washington position. While McCain has railed against the entrenched lobbying might in D.C., his close reliance on them could open him up to hypocrisy charges.

"The question about lobbyist could cloud the picture," said one industry source. "It might make it hard for him to appoint a lobbyist to a high-profile post."

One longtime FCC staffer said all the talk about who could get the job needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

"I have only three words to say: 'Remember Reed Hundt,' " the staffer said.

Hundt, one of the most powerful and controversial chairmen, wasn't on anyone's list when he was appointed by Clinton in 1993.

Those words could be a prophetic in 2008 as Sen. Marcy's were in 1832.