Industry ties run deep for Obama's FCC pick

President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission has an extensive history with the industries he would be in charge of regulating. But that experience has some observers wondering if Tom Wheeler was the best choice for the job.

ADVERTISEMENT
He was the president of the cable industry lobby about 30 years ago and later led the lobbying group for the cellphone carriers. In recent years, he has worked at venture capital firm Core Capital, investing in technology start-ups.

Larry Irving, a Commerce Department official during the Clinton administration and former Hewlett-Packard executive, argued that Wheeler's industry experience and connections will make it easier for him to "pull the levers of Washington power" and achieve his policy goals without being intimidated by powerful groups.

"Tom has the ability to call up any CEO in the country," Irving said. "He knows them on a first name basis."

But some liberals and consumer advocates expressed disappointment in the pick, worrying that Wheeler will be unwilling to crack down on the companies he used to represent.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he was "troubled" that the president would nominate a person with such extensive lobbying experience to the powerful post.

“The head of the FCC should be looking out first and foremost for the public interest and may have to stand up to some of our nation's biggest media and telecom companies," Sanders said in a statement.

"I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings," Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation said in a statement.

But many of the people who have worked with Wheeler over the years, including liberals, say they are confident he will be an aggressive champion for consumers.

Gigi Sohn, the president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said she expects Wheeler will be an "independent, proactive" FCC chairman.

Wheeler, the son of an insurance agent, studied business as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. He is a history buff who wrote two books on the Civil War, including one about how Lincoln used the telegraph to communicate with his generals.

Andy Schwartzman, a lawyer and public interest advocate, said that Wheeler has always been an evangelist for new and disruptive technologies. During the 1990s, Wheeler used to carry around three cellphones with him, Schwartzman said.

"And at the drop of the hat, he would whip them out and start showing people the features," Schwartzman said, noting that, by today's standards, the features, such as the ability to re-dial a phone number, were unimpressive.

Wheeler worked on an anti-war Senate campaign in 1968 and got his start in Washington at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. After seven years, he joined the National Cable Television Association (NCTA).

Wheeler was one of the driving forces behind the 1984 Cable Act, which set up a legal framework for cable providers to compete with over-the-air broadcasters.

In a bid to win the support of black lawmakers for the legislation, Wheeler agreed to equal opportunity employment requirements for minority groups and women.

Irving, who at the time was an aide to Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Texas), said the employment rules for cable companies were a "huge deal" and gave the bill a boost of momentum to pass the House. Irving said Wheeler fought to keep the employment provisions in the bill when senators tried to take them out.

While at the cable group, Wheeler met his wife, Carol, who at the time was fighting against him on nearly every issue as a lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters.

After several years working for various technology start-ups, Wheeler became the president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, now known as CTIA-the Wireless Association, in 1992.

Although the cellphone service market is now dominated by only four nationwide firms, at the time, the industry was made up of dozens of small start-ups.

As their top lobbyist, Wheeler pushed back against concerns that cellphones cause cancer and successfully lobbied for access to more wireless frequencies for the industry. He often touted the ability of cellphones to save lives during emergencies. He left the association in 2004.

In a 2009 interview on C-SPAN, Wheeler said he and his wife first became excited about Obama after hearing his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and reading his book "Dreams from My Father."

"We got really interested in this person and the opportunity he represented for a transformational moment in American history," Wheeler said.

He raised at least $200,000 for Obama's 2008 campaign and more than $500,000 for his reelection bid, according to transparency group OpenSecrets.

In 2007, he and Carol moved to Iowa for more than a month to campaign for Obama.

Christopher Lewis, now a lobbyist for Public Knowledge, was a regional field director for the Obama campaign at the time. He explained that Wheeler and his wife knocked on doors and organized events, including a New Year's Eve rally with Obama.

"They were a great influence and resource for our young staff, not only to have an extra set of hands, but to have someone who had been around politics before," Lewis said.

After the campaign, Wheeler led the presidential transition team in charge of science, art and technology issues.

Wheeler played a critical role in the decision to delay the transition from analog to digital broadcast television for six months, according to Lewis, who also worked on the presidential transition team.

He said Wheeler feared that moving ahead with the digital TV transition on schedule could hurt low-income and elderly people who rely on over-the-air TV.

"We were trying to make sure that it didn't add another burden for those consumers," Lewis said.

Steve Effros, an industry analyst and consultant, argued that as FCC chairman, Wheeler, who is 67 and wealthy, won't feel beholden to industry groups for his next job.

"Nobody should think this guy — because he ran these associations — is going to be a pushover or in some way unreasonably favorable in their direction," he argued.

Effros, who led a separate cable lobbying group when Wheeler was at NCTA, said that even though he and Wheeler were occasionally on the opposite sides of issues, Wheeler was always civil and pleasant.

"Tom can stick the knife in one of his rivals and the rival feels he has been patted on the back," former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

—Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Larry Irving's role at Hewlett-Packard. He was the vice president of global government affairs.