Surging cellphone industry shops for a new lobby chief

Cellphone carriers are in the market for a new top lobbyist.

Steve Largent, a former GOP congressman and Hall of Fame football player, has announced he will step down as leader of CTIA-The Wireless Association at the end of 2014.

Competition for the job is certain to be fierce, as the explosive growth of the wireless industry has given the group more clout than ever before.

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“It’s definitely a plum job. The money is right. The exposure is right — a sexy issue with telecommunications as well. So it’s definitely one of the better jobs in Washington,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group, which recruits for lobbying and law jobs.

In 2003, the cellular trade group, which represents Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and others, spent close to $2.8 million on lobbying, according to disclosure records. That budget has more than quadrupled now, with CTIA spending almost $12.4 million in 2012 alone.

 The business group posted nearly $65.9 million in total revenue for 2011, according to CTIA’s tax form for the year.

“They’ve got tons of money to throw around Washington,” a communications industry executive said. “It’s a big job.”

CTIA’s growing influence tracks the booming industry it represents. There are now more wireless subscriptions in the United States than there are people, and subscribers are spending more to watch videos, stream music and access apps on their mobile devices. 

 Largent has been paid handsomely for his work at CTIA. For 2011, his base salary was roughly $961,000, but combined with bonuses, retirement and other benefits, his total compensation was nearly $2.7 million — making him one of the highest-paid association heads in Washington.

CTIA might be looking to members of Congress to fill Largent’s position. Lawmakers could be receptive to the job, considering the pay and prestige it would bring.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they go after a current member who might be frustrated at the state of affairs on Capitol Hill,” Adler said. “It’s certainly a nice boost in pay for someone who’s making a Capitol Hill salary.”

 Others agreed that CTIA will be looking for a high-profile candidate with connections on Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission. 

“It’s certainly a highly visible position. Some name cache won’t hurt,” said Julian Ha, a practice leader at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm. “I suspect that they will want to have someone with D.C. connections. It’s a highly regulated space.”

Lobbyists identified Rob McDowell, a Republican who stepped down as an FCC commissioner earlier this year, as a potential candidate. Several lobbyists also mentioned former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

CTIA’s board of directors will lead the search for Largent’s successor. The group declined to comment for this story.

By the end of 2014, Largent will have been head of CTIA for more than 11 years — an unheard of tenure for trade association leaders. His departure is another sign of Washington’s increasing churn with huge new freshman classes in recent years.

 “He had a hell of run,” said one Democratic lobbyist who follows telecommunications issues, about Largent. “When you go into these jobs, you have to have a golden parachute because you’re going to have to pull the ripcord at some point. The turnover on the Hill is so high. ... There is a whole new brand of Republican up there that is not too familiar with him.”

CTIA’s top goal in Washington is to get access to more airwaves for the wireless industry. The additional airwaves would help carriers meet the skyrocketing demand. 

But one of the biggest challenges for Largent’s successor will be to avoid alienating any of the group’s member companies, which are often on the opposite sides of policy issues.

Verizon and AT&T, the two largest carriers, frequently battle the rest of the industry over whether regulations should favor smaller competitors.

 

“The challenge will be herding the cats that are in your membership who have their own Washington lobbyists breathing down your neck,” the communications industry executive said. “It’s not winning legislation on Capitol Hill — it’s keeping your membership happy, and that’s not easy.”