Tom Wheeler, Former Lobbyist and Obama Loyalist, Seen as FCC Frontrunner

The well-regarded venture capitalist and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist recently received a major boost.

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The U.S. Capitol is pictured on Dec. 31, 2012.

Tom Wheeler, a well-regarded venture capitalist and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, is the frontrunner to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, according to top telecom analysts and D.C. policy sources. Wheeler, who is currently managing director at D.C.-based firm Core Capital Partners, is a longtime Obama loyalist. During Obama’s first presidential campaign, he and his wife Carol spent six weeks in Iowa, where they worked the phones and knocked on doors for the candidate. Wheeler also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s two presidential campaigns, according to the Center For Responsive Politics.

Wheeler recently received a major boost when several prominent former Obama administration officials wrote a letter to the president supporting his candidacy. “Tom has had an impressive career in the telecommunications and high-tech field that makes him eminently qualified for this position,” the officials wrote. “He understands the importance of reclaiming the pro-competition, pro-innovation, pro-growth regulatory ideal.” Wheeler declined to comment for this story.

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The letter’s signatories included Susan Crawford, former Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, and herself an oft-mentioned candidate for FCC chair. Crawford, currently a professor at Cardozo School of Law, is widely respected by the public interest community, and is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age. The letter was also signed by Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a well-known telecom public interest advocate and the former president of the Media Access Project.

“After picking up some helpful endorsements to cover his left flank, former wireless and cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler appears to still have the inside track on becoming FCC chairman, in our opinion,” Stifel telecom analysts Christopher C. King and David Kaut wrote in a recent research report. “We believe he would be a capable chairman who is receptive to many wireless and cable policy arguments, but would feel pressure from rivals and critics of those sectors, including wireline telcos and broadcasters to demonstrate independence.”

Despite that vote of confidence, many in the public interest community remain suspicious of Wheeler — even as they acknowledge that he’s the frontrunner — due to his industry lobbying and the fact that his positions on the major issues facing the FCC remain largely unknown. Earlier in his career, Wheeler served as president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), and later as CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). In late March, more than two dozen public interest groups wrote to Obama expressing alarm that the president was considering a candidate “who was the head of not one but two major industry lobbying groups.”

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“After decades of industry-backed chairmen, we need a strong consumer advocate and public interest representative at the helm,” wrote the groups, which included the Free Press Action Fund and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. The letter did not mention Wheeler by name, but it was clear to whom the groups were referring. “It’s time to end regulatory capture at the FCC and restore balance to government oversight.”

Although his industry background makes some in the public interest community nervous, Wheeler’s supporters point out that his lobbying occurred when the cable and wireless industries were the upstart challengers to entrenched broadcasting and telecom interests. “He has consistently fought on the side of increasing competition, including representing the cable television and wireless industries in their early years when they were the insurgents challenging the established players,” the former officials wrote in their letter to Obama.

Meanwhile, one of Wheeler’s rivals for FCC chair, current FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, received a boost in late March when more than 30 U.S. senators, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) wrote to Obama supporting her candidacy. Prior to joining the FCC, Rosenworcel served as Senior Communications Counsel to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee, under Rockefeller’s leadership.

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“She is equally respected by industry, the public safety community, and public interest groups,” the senators wrote of Rosenworcel, adding that she enjoyed strong bipartisan support during her FCC confirmation, which would allow Obama to “quickly install a proven leader at this important agency.”

But despite the senators’ backing, Rosenworcel faces an important challenge to becoming the next FCC chair: By nominating her, Obama would have to leap-frog another current FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, who has more seniority at the agency. (Either Clyburn or Rosenworcel could become acting chair, which would not require Senate confirmation, during the confirmation process for a permanent replacement.)

Speaking to reporters last week, Rockefeller, who as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee has jurisdiction over the FCC, expressed reservations about Wheeler’s background as a cable and wireless lobbyist, calling it cause for a “little bit” of concern. “A lobbyist is a lobbyist,” Rockefeller told reporters on Capitol Hill, in comments cited by The Hill newspaper. “He’s been lobbying for some of the things he’d be making decisions on.”

If Obama does nominate Wheeler, it wouldn’t be the first time the president tapped a top campaign supporter to lead the FCC. Outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a former Harvard Law School chum of the president, was also a major campaign bundler for Obama. After Obama was elected, Genachowski co-led the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Group for Obama’s transition team. Similarly, Wheeler led the transition team’s Agency Review Working Group for the science, technology, space, and arts agencies. If Wheeler is nominated, he would have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.