The job opening became public this week when the FCC announced that Rick Kaplan, who currently holds the position, is going to become the head of the wireless bureau for the whole commission.
With that transition imminent, a close race is shaping up for his successor. According to people familiar with the process, the three leading candidates to succeed him are Amy Levine, Zac Katz, and Sherrese Smith, who each currently serve as aides to Genachowski.
Smith is the legal advisor for media, consumer, and enforcement issues. Katz is the legal advisor for wireline communications, international, and Internet issues. Levine is a special counsel focused on incentive auctions, spectrum, and public safety.
Sources who work with the commission expressed comfort with all three of the candidates, calling them all well-qualified. That includes a range of sources in industry, Hill, public interest, and FCC positions.
Still, many of the same sources acknowledged that each of the candidates would bring different strengths to the job, and said those differences could help steer the agenda of the FCC.
Several Democratic Hill aides who weighed in on background expressed the most comfort with Levine. She worked on the Hill for years, most recently for Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications subcommittee. Before that, she worked for Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Ex-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Mo.).
They said not only is her knowledge of the Hill an asset, but her focus on spectrum policy makes her stand out. She has focused on incentive auctions in particular in the chairman's office. That aligns with the key telecom considerations in Congress right now, where spectrum legislation moved to the full Senate on Wednesday. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is also addressing the issue.
Levine's previous experience also included a tenure at Covington & Burling. Sources called her a natural leader who stands out for her ability to build positive working relationships.
Meanwhile, media and cable interests were particularly warm to the prospect of Smith winning the job. They said she brings a strong understanding of their issues in particular.
Smith previously served as general counsel at Washington Post Digital and practiced law at Arnold & Porter. She is the longest serving FCC aide of the three candidates.
Antoinette Bush, a parter at Skadden Arps focusing on communications policy, said Smith is known as hardworking and sharp. Bush has represented such clients as News Corporation, Viacom, and the Motion Picture Association of America.
"One of the things that most impresses me about Sherrese is whenever you go to a meeting with her, she's very prepared. She has excellent command of the legal and policy issues and has extremely good judgement. I don't always agree with her decisions, but even if she doesn't agree with you on an issue, she'll hear your side of it," Bush said.
Sources across various sectors expressed on background that they think the chairman's office would benefit from the diversity that Levine as a woman and Smith as an African American woman could bring to an a somewhat diversity-starved office.
Meanwhile, Katz stood out among public interest advocates. Several public interest sources said they are most comfortable with Katz of the three candidates, but noted that they have worked positively with the other candidates, as well.
Said one public interest advocate: "All three are terrific, but Zac has public interest in his DNA. He's smart, he's thoughtful. What sets him apart is his public interest DNA."
Katz worked closely on one of the public interest crowd's signature issues last year: net neutrality.
He helped the agency steer through months of delicate meetings with industry and consumer groups that eventually yielded compromise open Internet rules that drew some industry support and fulfilled a campaign promise from President Obama. Katz was in the room for stakeholder meetings between the FCC, telecom, cable, and Internet companies.
Katz served as deputy bureau chief in the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning. He joined the FCC from the White House Counsel’s Office and previously worked at law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. He also worked with technology companies at a strategy consulting and investment firm in Silicon Valley.