CBC Backs Starks for New FCC Term; Lawmakers Float Sohn Replacements to White House
Lawmakers are beginning to forward to the White House the names of preferred contenders to replace Gigi Sohn as President Joe Biden's nominee to be the FCC's third Democrat, after the ex-candidate’s Tuesday announcement that she had asked the White House to withdraw her from Senate consideration (see 2303070082). The names of several potential contenders were also circulating among communications sector lobbyists, but several officials told us there's no prohibitive favorite in the immediate aftermath of Sohn's withdrawal. The White House didn't comment on its plans. The administration hadn’t formally withdrawn Sohn Friday.
The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, urged Biden Thursday to renominate current FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, one of two Democrats on the 2-2 tied body, to another term. Starks and Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr face the prospect of Senate confirmation processes before the next presidential administration begins Jan. 20, 2025.
Starks “is uniquely positioned to lead as we drive generational improvements in closing the digital divide and work to ensure that technology lifts up all communities, including our most marginalized,” CBC leaders said in an earlier version of the letter to Biden we obtained Friday, which lobbyists said mirrors the final text. Starks’ “continued leadership will be indispensable as your Administration works to rebuild our economy from the bottom up and middle out and combat racial injustice.”
Starks “has been leading the way" on implementing the FCC’s affordable connectivity program, through which the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “provided unprecedented levels of investment to address” broadband access and affordability challenges faced by “rural communities and communities of color,” the CBC said. Starks “has focused on constituencies whose needs are often overlooked” by encouraging ISPs “to expand their affordable offerings and worked tirelessly to ensure that more eligible households successfully enroll” in ACP.
Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., separately told us he’s encouraging the Biden administration to quickly renominate Starks so his confirmation process “can get done soon, as opposed to waiting until the end of the year” for it to become “another dilemma” that could either lead to a continued 2-2 partisan split at the FCC or shift the commission to a 2-1 GOP majority.
Senators will likely need to deliberate on how they would move on potential reconfirmation of Carr and Starks in conjunction with a Sohn replacement, lobbyists said. Starks’ term ended June 30, 2022, and he will have to leave the FCC by Jan. 3, 2024, absent reapproval. Carr’s term ends June 30, and he will have to leave the commission by Jan. 3, 2025, absent reconfirmation.
Lobbyists and observers see former acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez, ex-Wiley, and NASA Chief of Staff Susie Perez Quinn as the strongest candidates right now to replace Sohn, but other names are also circulating. The Biden administration was quietly vetting Gomez and Quinn as potential contenders last year as a contingency if it became clear the Senate wouldn’t be able to confirm Sohn but it hasn’t gotten far in that process, lobbyists said.
Lobbyists expected Lujan and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to write Biden as soon as Friday in support of one or more candidates from the Latino community. The caucus urged the White House Wednesday to nominate a Latino to fill the vacancy but didn’t name a specific candidate then. Gomez and Quinn are both Latina, so nominating either would answer both the CHC and a push from the National Hispanic Media Coalition (see 2303080083) and others to have community representation at the FCC, lobbyists said. The last person to represent the Latino community on the commission, Gloria Tristani, left in September 2001 (see 0109110015).
CHC Vice Chair-Member Engagement Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., a House Communications Subcommittee member, confirmed Friday CHC members individually have been forwarding “good” candidates to the White House for consideration and “you’re likely to see some specific names getting thrown out there” in the coming days. Cardenas told us he and the caucus aren’t likely to publicize any candidates unless they’re “willing to take on that nomination,” but they include “some folks already working for the government” and at least one “in the private sector.”
Liberal groups may raise objections to Gomez over her past work at Wiley on behalf of communications industry clients, lobbyists said. Free Press urged Biden not to nominate anyone to the vacant FCC seat who “worked or lobbied in any capacity” during the past five years on behalf of industries under commission jurisdiction (see 2303080083). Some lobbyists also pointed to Gomez's recent acceptance of the State Department's appointment (see 2301260072) to lead U.S. preparations for the World Radiocommunication Conference, which starts Nov. 20, as evidence she may not want to seek an FCC nomination. Quinn hasn’t indicated interest in being an FCC commissioner, but would be able to move quickly through the Senate confirmation process, lobbyists said. They noted Senate Republicans reportedly have no objections to Quinn serving on the commission.
Several lobbyists mentioned DLA Piper’s Smitty Smith as a potential contender. Smith, who now chairs DLA Piper’s regulatory and government affairs practice, may not have as strong prospects now as he did when he drew the CBC’s endorsement in 2021 to be FCC chair (see 2104280057), lobbyists said. They noted the CBC’s Thursday letter to Biden didn’t mention Smith. Others also cited defeated 2022 Democratic Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, but they acknowledged the blowback when her name circulated after the November election as a possible Sohn replacement (see 2211300074) diminished her prospects.
CBC First Vice Chair Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., a House Communications member, emphasized Friday the caucus has "not had a conversation yet” on whom it's members would prefer to replace Sohn as an FCC nominee but they definitely want Stark to remain at the commission past his expired term.
“There are several qualified candidates” to replace Sohn who “can be confirmed quickly,” Incompas CEO Chip Pickering told us. “We need a full” FCC given “all of the historic issues” it’s currently tackling like disbursing ACP money.