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Joe Biden may or may not have a short list of people he'd nominate to chair the FCC, but the rest of Washington does.
Tech lobbyists, tech activists and current and former FCC officials have all begun speculating about who Biden would choose if he wins. There's a long list of Democrats with FCC experience, and a number of them are people of color, which is sure to be a factor for Biden if he's elected; several insiders said that being a white male would be just short of disqualifying for the top slot at the FCC under a Biden administration.
Here are the potential nominees whose names are coming up most often in these conversations, arranged roughly in the order in which tech insiders rank their odds.
Coming Monday: Who will Biden pick for the FTC?
If Mignon Clyburn wants to be the chair of the FCC, it's hers for the taking. That's the view of multiple people close to the campaign, at least. Clyburn is supremely well-credentialed, considering she served as an FCC commissioner for nine years, including as acting chair — and she's also the daughter of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip whose endorsement helped bring Biden's campaign back to life.
"The most obvious [choice] is Mignon, but the question there becomes, does she want it?" said one telecommunications industry source.
Clyburn might have other interests. She's been making moves toward the private sector for some time and was recently nominated to entertainment company Lionsgate's board of directors. There's also been some speculation that she was more interested in a position on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a small but important body that regulates electricity, gas and oil.
Clyburn has kept mum about what she wants. But she'll likely have some say over who would be FCC chair under Biden, whether it's her or someone else.
Jessica Rosenworcel is another obvious choice and clear frontrunner for the job. She's the longest-serving Democrat on the commission; she has cultivated close relationships with important digital rights advocacy groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge; and she has essentially been auditioning for the job since she was appointed by former President Obama in 2011. Any nominee to chair the FCC has to win Senate confirmation, and Rosenworcel is a "darling of the Hill," said one tech policy veteran.
Thirty-seven Senate Democrats urged Obama to appoint Rosenworcel as the new FCC chair in 2013, a hefty feat for any FCC commissioner. (That push was led by former Sen. John Rockefeller, her longtime boss who is no longer in office.) Ultimately, Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, who's now heavily involved in Biden's campaign. But Rosenworcel is still seen as a serious, popular contender with extensive policy bona fides. She's spent years calling for an end to the "homework gap," her phrase for the children who are falling behind in school because they don't have proper internet access, and she never holds back on criticizing the Trump administration's pro-business approach.
It's safe to assume that Rosenworcel would be the interim chair under a Biden administration. But there are a lot of factors determining whether she would become the chairwoman, including the fact that she occasionally scrapped back in the day with Wheeler and his team, many of whom are also now working with the Biden campaign.
Geoffrey Starks, who was nominated to replace Clyburn at the FCC in 2018, has maintained a positive reputation through his short tenure as a friendly, thoughtful public servant with a commitment to diversity issues. He has been calling for the FCC to collect data on the racial makeup of the workforces it oversees, including in the broadcast industry, and has focused on defending the Universal Service Fund.
Typically, the more senior commissioner would have a better shot than the junior member. But Starks is well-liked and qualified, with less historical baggage at the FCC.
"It could easily be Jessica or Geoffrey Starks," said Blair Levin, a former FCC lawyer. "You could say they're both likely to be under serious consideration."
Gigi Sohn is one of the most serious names being circulated outside of the FCC. Sohn is a central figure in the public interest community as the co-founder and former president of Public Knowledge and a close longtime adviser to Wheeler at the FCC. Sohn worked as a senior adviser at the FCC between 2013 and 2017, and she has since held fellowship positions with Georgetown Law's Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Mozilla.
She's an outspoken advocate for restoring the FCC's full authority and is seen with some skepticism by representatives of the telecom industry, who have battled with her for years. Some sources speculated she might struggle to make it through the Senate if Republicans remain in the majority.
"Gigi would be a controversial choice," said one telecom industry representative.
But Sohn's allies in Washington have already started drumming up excitement about her behind the scenes, arguing that she's the only one who would truly take the telecom industry to task, as she's done relentlessly over her career. "She's been in this space for decades, she built a lot of this community," said one public interest source, who argued that Sohn has friends both within the advocacy world and "a pretty large segment of the private industry, mostly in the internet technology space."
Earlier this year, Biden tapped Larry Strickling — a tech policy veteran in Washington and previously the policy coordinator for Pete Buttiegeg — to run domestic policy issues for the campaign, meaning he's tasked with overseeing the campaign's many policy committees. Sources said Strickling would likely be a serious contender for any administration job he's interested in.
Presidential transition teams often dole out administration nominations based on who was a loyal and active ally to the campaign, and Strickling fits into that category neatly. It doesn't hurt that he has worked across a multitude of relevant tech and telecom government positions since the 1990s, including stints at the FCC and the Commerce Department, and he was a close policy coordinator for Obama.
The question remains whether Strickling would want to return to the FCC or try out a new role, potentially even higher up in government.
Anna Gomez, who is currently a partner at Wiley Rein, "knows FCC policy from just about every direction," said one tech policy veteran. She held five separate jobs at the agency between 1994 and 2006. And in between, she served as the Democratic counsel on the Senate Commerce Committee in the mid-'90s and deputy chief of staff for the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton. Not to mention that she was the acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2009 before working as the deputy assistant secretary for communications and information until 2013.
In other words, Gomez's resume, background and friendly reputation would make her an inevitable contender for the FCC.
Edward 'Smitty' Smith
Edward "Smitty" Smith, a former adviser to the FCC and 2014 candidate for D.C. attorney general, is currently a partner with the law firm DLA Piper, where Kamala Harris' husband, Douglas Emhoff, is a partner.
Smith, alongside two other attorneys at DLA Piper's Washington office, held a fundraiser for Harris last fall, when she was still in the presidential race.
"[Smith] got lot of praise for his work from Wheeler," said Levin. "He's very effective both working in the institution as well as with the outside groups, and that's one of the things that a chairman has to be able to do: work both internally and externally."
Travis LeBlanc, who is currently a partner at Cooley, was a special adviser to Harris when she was the California attorney general. He served as the FCC's enforcement bureau chief and is a current member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the government's privacy watchdog. He's garnered a reputation for being tough on tech companies and making close connections throughout Washington.
"I would think that the Kamala Harris sphere … will have a lot of say in this administration, and Travis would be a prime candidate," said one tech policy veteran.
"[Harris] is almost like a prime minister to [Biden's] being president," he said. "I think she would be cut from the same mold as an Al Gore or Dick Cheney in terms of being a very active, influential vice president."
Sources said LeBlanc could be a top choice for the FCC as well as the FTC or DOJ, given his ties to Harris and extensive litigation experience.
Clint Odom has been on the short list to be FCC commissioner before. He's eminently qualified; he spent years at the FCC, including a stint as Rosenworcel's policy director, as well as the Senate Commerce Committee. And between 2007 and 2019, he served as the legislative director to Harris, aiding her on technology issues as well as racial justice initiatives, including an anti-lynching proposal that is now a part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
He's worked across the nonprofit and private sectors as well. He served as a vice president and director at Verizon in the early 2000s, and today he's the executive director of the National Urban League's Washington bureau, where he works on social justice issues.
Odom could be a prime contender, considering his ties to Harris, his close relationships within Washington's tech policy circles and his background in racial equity policymaking, which will likely be important to the Biden-Harris team.
Catherine Sandoval is a well-known telecommunications expert who previously served as the first female Hispanic commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission. She is currently a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, where she focuses on telecommunications, antitrust and energy issues.
She's had a positive reputation among FCC watchers since the late 1990s, when she helped develop policies for the FCC around spectrum.
Sandoval said she would be "honored" to serve at either the FCC or the FTC, given that she both has a history of working with internet law and policy and has written extensively about antitrust law and the FTC Act. She said expanding internet access and improving affordability should be top priorities for any FCC. "COVID has really peeled back the veneer over what we knew was there and society had tolerated," Sandoval said. "As we look at equipping America for the 21st century, we need to truly close these access gaps."
Susan Crawford is a progressive policy wonk who made a name for herself as an unabashed consumer advocate when she held numerous tech-related positions during the Obama years. Crawford was the special assistant to the president for science, technology and innovation policy under Obama in 2009 and co-led the FCC transition team between the Bush and Obama administrations. She's the author of "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age" and currently teaches at Harvard Law School.
Crawford would be seen as a surprisingly left-leaning choice for Biden, and her nomination might rile up the telecom industry and business-friendly Democrats. But she has significant bona fides as a critical champion of the net neutrality movement (a Democratic FCC priority) and a friend to the public interest community.
Blair Levin's name is familiar to anyone who's spent time around the FCC since the 1990s. He was chief of staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt from 1993 to 1997, and he came back to serve as the executive director of the FCC's National Broadband Plan from 2009 to 2010 after playing an instrumental role in Obama's transition team. Levin, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, has continued to research and write about telecom and broadband issues for years.
But he says he's not holding his breath. "Would I bet on me?" Levin said. "The answer is I'd rather bet on the others. I play Wall Street analyst and people ask the odds of things; when I look at the odds of things, the odds of those [other] folks are better."
Qualified Hill staffers are often considered for open administration positions, and John Branscome is an unavoidable contender if the Biden camp decides to vie for congressional expertise. Branscome is senior counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, working under ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, and formerly served as an FCC bureau chief and legal adviser. He replaced Rosenworcel on the Senate Commerce Committee in 2012.
Jessica González is the popular co-CEO of Free Press, a powerful advocacy group that focuses on media and communications issues. González has been a trusted resource for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and has testified before the relevant committees of jurisdiction on multiple occasions — including one time "while suffering from acute morning sickness" and another time "while eight months pregnant," as her bio points out. Before working at Free Press, González was the executive vice president and general counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition, where she pushed for inclusive communications policies.
González was one of the names floated by the advocacy community to succeed Clyburn in 2018, though ultimately Starks got the job. Her nomination to an FCC commissioner spot would be a serious win for the public interest world, which has long complained that they have been underrepresented at the FCC.
Nicol Turner Lee
Nicol Turner Lee, a respected telecommunications expert and the director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation, says she won't comment on whether she'd like a job as an FCC or FTC commissioner. But she has a clear vision for who she thinks Biden should be looking for to help run those agencies.
"They will be looking for more candidates who tend to be much more progressive or driven by a background in equity, either in a commission role or in a leadership role," Lee told Protocol. She said the fault lines drawn out by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement have made it more important than ever for agency heads to focus on racial inequality in the tech sector and broadband access, with a special focus on algorithmic discrimination.
She's been studying and talking about all of those topics for years. And she thinks any commissioner or chair will have to be "data-driven" — another quality she happens to have.
Several sources floated Lee as a potentially strong commissioner for the FTC or FCC, depending on how the chair roles shake out.
Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.