Midterm politicking comes for Biden’s stalled tech nominee
Midterm politics are endangering a key Biden nominee who would give Democrats a majority at the Federal Communications Commission — jeopardizing the administration’s push to restore net neutrality and other tech regulations rolled back in the Trump era.
A coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and telecom industry allies are ratcheting up pressure on potential swing Democrats to oppose FCC nominee Gigi Sohn, including by calling the progressive consumer advocate an “anti-police radical” and accusing her of being biased against rural America. Sohn’s supporters say these broad swipes, rooted in politically sensitive culture wars, bear little attachment to her actual record.
FCC nominations almost never generate this kind of controversy — in fact, nominees for the agency used to cruise through the Senate by voice vote.
But Democrats have struggled to find the votes needed to advance Sohn, a net neutrality supporter and former FCC aide who would be the first openly gay commissioner, amid ongoing reticence from moderates who’ve stayed silent amid a barrage of telecom industry and GOP grievances. Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits like Fox host Tucker Carlson have delivered six months of attacks over her sometimes-barbed Twitter posts and claims she would seek to censor right-leaning media.
Sohn and her supporters argue Republicans and these industry opponents are fabricating controversies to stymie Democrats’ agenda at the FCC. With Sohn’s confirmation, the agency could reassert regulatory power over broadband internet networks as President Joe Biden rolls out $65 billion in infrastructure law funding to close the digital divide.
But Sohn has no margin for error in the Senate, where she most likely would need the support of all 50 Democrats to overcome a solid GOP blockade.
Sohn’s critics are trying “to create a caricature of the real person that can be targeted as a campaign issue — and it’s distortive and distracting,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Senate Commerce member who enthusiastically supported her nomination through her committee vetting. “There’s no reason to make a nominee a campaign issue, drag her through the mud, discourage people from doing public service and suffocate honest, open debate on real issues.”
Biden could have evaded the midterm pressures by nominating Sohn earlier in his term. Instead, he waited until October, to the distress of many Senate Democrats who have seen progressive priorities like net neutrality stall during the 15 months that a 2-2 partisan split has reigned at the FCC. And now Congress is in the middle of a two-week recess without putting her nomination on the floor for what would be the first of three votes.
Sohn’s opponents, including GOP campaigners, moderate Democrats outside of Congress and groups linked to the telecom industry, are using that time to sharpen their attacks.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee labeled Sohn an “anti-police radical” in late March, while pressuring vulnerable Democratic incumbents in New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado to take a stance on her. The NRSC cited criticism she has received from the Fraternal Order of Police, which compiled a list of Twitter activity in which Sohn had liked or retweeted posts that criticized police brutality and super-expensive prison phone calls, called for an end of no-knock warrants and defended the slogan “defund the police” as calling for more equitable community funding.
Meanwhile, a political advocacy group headed by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) just launched a $250,000 social media advertising campaign against Sohn, set to run for three weeks starting over the congressional recess. This group, the One Country Project, has accused Sohn of dismissing rural America, pointing to comments in which the nominee accused policymakers of “disproportionately” steering broadband dollars to those communities and giving urban dwellers the short shrift — an attack coming as Biden this week launches a “rural infrastructure tour,” including a focus on broadband.
Heitkamp’s organization is targeting people in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado — which all have Senate Democrats on the ballot this year — as well as Montana and West Virginia, where Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Joe Manchin face reelection in 2024. The ads also are running in Alaska and Maine, home to moderate Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski, who is seeking reelection this year, and Susan Collins. In an interview, Heitkamp said she fears that Sohn’s statements could harm Democrats who have championed efforts to promote rural broadband.
“We’re going to focus on where we think the greatest political impact will be for members who vote for her,” Heitkamp said. “It’s not done to punish anyone — it’s done to say, ‘Pay attention to this because this could come back and really have an adverse effect against all the good work that you’ve done.’”
Although Heitkamp’s group doesn’t disclose funding, some of its key staff overlap with lobbying and public affairs firm Forbes Tate, whose clients include cable and wireless giants frequently at odds with Sohn’s past advocacy. One Country staff first put the nomination on Heitkamp’s radar, according to the former senator. Asked about those ties, she said that she wouldn’t have gotten involved if not for her concern about Sohn’s nomination creating a “mixed message on broadband” for Democrats trying to reach rural voters.
Also escalating its criticism is the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic advocacy organization pressing Democrats to abandon Sohn, accusing her of favoring big tech companies like Google over the interests of minority communities. The group counts broadband giants like AT&T and Comcast among its partners and is among a broader coalition of Hispanic groups that last year called on Biden to name a Latino nominee for the FCC seat. The coalition says it would renew such a call if Sohn’s nomination falters.
Key senators at the receiving end of this pressure have yet to say how they stand on Sohn’s nomination.
Manchin remains undecided after meeting her, his office confirmed. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), facing a tough reelection battle this November, said he’s “continuing to evaluate her record” after a similar meeting. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who is facing attacks from a GOP opponent over the nominee, didn’t respond when asked about Sohn.
Several Democrats have seemed to come around, however. Another potential Democratic swing vote, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted for Sohn in a 14-14 vote last month in the Senate Commerce Committee, despite their earlier disagreements about net neutrality. Tester and Sen. Raphael Warnock, another Democrat facing an intense election fight in Georgia, also voted yes on Sohn in committee.
It took months of private persuasion for Sohn to win over committee Democrats amid questions about conflict of interest from the broadcast industry (she resolved broadcasters’ concerns in January, at least, by pledging to temporarily recuse from FCC proceedings about broadcaster compensation and copyright related to one of her nonprofit roles).
The White House is actively engaging senators and making calls on Sohn’s behalf, a Biden administration official said, requesting anonymity to discuss ongoing efforts. The person emphasized that Sohn still has Biden’s strong support.
Republicans, who hope to capture the Senate in November, said the election-year timing works against Sohn.
“You get later into an even-numbered year, it gets harder to process anything — particularly things that are controversial, and her nomination is certainly controversial,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “And I think there are some Democrats who have issues with her.”
Sohn’s allies have sought to counter the narratives against her. Former FCC public safety leaders have endorsed her law enforcement bonafides. Chris Ruddy, the CEO of right-leaning cable network Newsmax, rejected the idea that she would use her power as a commissioner to suppress conservative voices. Broadcast executive Byron Allen has touted her commitment to minority media representation. And a Trump-era Agriculture Department leader has insisted that Sohn cares about rural connectivity.
Other industry trade groups representing tech and rural telecom players have pushed the Senate to confirm Sohn, too, citing her extensive qualifications.
But opposition from police could prove challenging for Democrats in a year when Republicans are seizing on spiking crime rates while Biden touts his support for law enforcement.
The Fraternal Order of Police is basing much of its criticism on Sohn’s membership on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that supports protection for strong encryption despite arguments by law enforcement that the technology protects wrongdoers. Sohn herself hasn’t focused on that issue, however, and her supporters note that encryption is generally beyond FCC jurisdiction.
Sohn has sought to assure FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco in recent months that she’s a “supporter of law enforcement,” he said in an interview. But he said her tweets don’t consistently back that assertion — and warned that senators’ stances on the Sohn fight could be “an element” of how the national police union advises its state chapters to endorse candidates in the midterms.
“We intend to pursue it until such time as the issue has been resolved,” Pasco said.
This spring will test whether Democrats can unify their caucus. Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is shepherding Biden’s tech nominees, blamed floor logistics for the delay in bringing Sohn to the floor — and said she doesn’t think the police pushback is creating problems for the nomination.
Cantwell instead sees Republicans using the same playbook to stall Biden’s nominees for the FCC, Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Product Safety Commission. (Republicans have also blocked Biden’s picks for posts including the Federal Reserve and a top bank regulatory post.)
“They’re trying to stop pro-consumer advocates from being the majority,” Cantwell argued. “They’re more interested in helping big business.”