Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the only Senate Democrat not co-sponsoring the Save the Internet Act, a bill to restore net neutrality rules that were enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Obama administration and reversed in 2017 by President Trump’s FCC Chair, former Verizon attorney Ajit Pai.
Instead, Sinema has formed a working group with Republican Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), who blocked a vote on the Save the Internet Act in June, to craft a new bill on the issue. Sinema and Wicker have both said they oppose the Obama-era rule that treats internet services as a common carrier, allowing the FCC to use broader regulatory authority granted to it under Title II of the Communications Act, and would prefer that it be regulated under Title I of that Act, which limits the FCC’s ability to enforce regulations. Internet service providers (ISPs) take the same position, arguing that Title II classification would lead to lower investment by the industry, something that did not occur while the rules were in effect.
In 2014, Verizon got an earlier version of net neutrality rules thrown out by a federal appeals court decision that said the FCC did not have statutory authority to enforce rules against blocking and throttling under Title I.
Net neutrality advocates say that Sinema and Wicker’s efforts are not sincere. “Senator Sinema’s so-called working group with Roger Wicker is a total joke,” Evan Greer, deputy director at pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future, told Sludge. “It’s nothing but a smokescreen intended to muddy the waters and confuse the public.”
The Save the Internet Act passed the House of Representatives in April with all Democrats who were present voting in favor. One Republican, Florida Rep. Bill Posey, also voted for the bill. Sinema has endorsed Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is running a primary challenge against the chief sponsor of the Save the Internet Act in the Senate, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Sinema, who did not respond to Sludge’s request for comment, has not gotten an especially large amount of campaign contributions from ISPs over the course of her career. The telecom industry does not rank as one of her top 20 career donor industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Indeed, many of the Democrats who are co-sponsoring the Save the Internet Act have taken much more money from ISPs than she has.
So why has Sinema bucked her party and taken a telecom industry-friendly position on net neutrality?
A Super PAC Run by a Comcast Lobbyist
One possible answer may be her relationship with a “dark money” nonprofit called Center Forward that receives substantial funding from cable and telecom industry trade groups and its affiliated super PAC, Center Forward Committee, which is run by a Comcast lobbyist. Sinema directed a six-figure donation to Center Forward Committee through a centrist PAC that she used to chair just weeks before the group made big independent expenditures to support Sinema’s campaigns.
Center Forward is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit with a board composed exclusively of corporate lobbyists that says it “works to end the culture of gridlock in Washington by bringing together moderate centrist allies to find bipartisan solutions.” Center Forward does not have to disclose its donors, but through reviewing other organizations’ tax documents, Sludge found that telecom industry groups that lobby against net neutrality have given it substantial and consistent donations.
Since 2014, Center Forward has received at least $137,000 from NCTA, a trade group representing cable companies like Comcast and Charter. Another telecom industry group, CTIA, which represents wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon, gave the group $30,000 from 2012 to 2014. Prior to 2012, Center Forward was known as the Blue Dog Research Forum, and from 2010 to 2012 CTIA and NCTA each gave it $25,500. NCTA and CTIA tax documents for 2018 are not yet publicly available.
In the final weeks of Sinema’s tightly contested 2018 Senate race against Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Center Forward Committee made an independent expenditure of $100,000 for digital ads that opposed McSally. Sinema ended up winning the race, and McSally was later appointed by Arizona Governor Doug Doucey to fill the Senate seat that was vacated by Jon Kyl. In 2014, Center Forward Committee spent $12,227 on ads supporting Sinema in her House race against Republican Wendy Rogers.
Center Forward Committee’s treasurer, Jefferies Murray, is a lobbyist for Comcast at FTI Government Affairs, a lobbying and PR shop that has run covert influence campaigns for ExxonMobil and other large American corporations. FTI, where Murray is managing director, has been paid more than $1.8 million by Comcast to lobby the government on issues including net neutrality since 2013, and Murray is listed as the sole lobbyist dealing with net neutrality issues in more than a dozen quarterly lobbying reports filed by the company since 2013.
Murray did not respond to Sludge’s questions for this article.
The chairman of Center Forward’s nonprofit, former Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer, is also employed at FTI. Cramer is managing director in FTI’s strategic communication’s segment and also works as a lobbyist for clients in industries such as biotech and defense.
Other Center Forward board members and employees have also lobbied for the telecom industry. Board members Elizabeth Greer and Cindy Brown are both lobbyists and partners at Forbes Tate Partners, where they lobby for CTIA, NCTA, Comcast, and Verizon, among others. Board member John Tanner, a former Democratic House member who co-founded the Blue Dog Coalition, is vice chair at Prime Policy Group and lobbied for AT&T in 2013 and 2017. Secretary Vickie Walling recently retired from Prime Policy Group, where she lobbied for AT&T intermittently from 2011 to 2018.
Fight for the Future has noted that Sinema’s explanation for opposing net neutrality “bears an eerie resemblance” to language used by NCTA and a group it funds, Broadband for America. Sinema’s canned constituent response on net neutrality reads, “Reclassifying broadband providers under laws designed in the 1930s for utilities may have serious unintended consequences,” while ads run by Broadband for America read, “Regulating a 21st century industry with a 1930s law is a recipe for disaster. Protect #NetNeutrality with bipartisan legislation.”
“Sinema is arguably the single member of Congress who is carrying the most water for the telecom industry right now and standing in the way of restoring basic net neutrality protections that are supported by [an] overwhelming majority of voters from across the political spectrum,” said Greer. “By refusing to support the Save the Internet Act she is providing cover for Republicans and kneecapping grassroots efforts to advance legislation that—if we had a functioning democracy—would enjoy widespread bipartisan support.”
Sinema was chair of the Blue Dog PAC, the campaign arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, during the 115th Congress, a period during which the PAC raised maximum legal contributions of $10,000 from NCTA, Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. On Sept. 12, 2018, a little more than a month before Center Forward Committee spent $100,000 on ads opposing Sinema’s opponent, Blue Dog PAC donated $150,000 to Center Forward Committee. Blue Dog PAC also donated to Center Forward Committee in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
Despite Sinema’s control of Blue Dog PAC, campaign finance expert Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center does not think the transactions would violate the law against coordination between candidates and super PACs. “Taken alone, it likely wouldn’t constitute coordination, unless the transfer was accompanied by some request or direction that the super PAC run certain ads supporting Sinema,” Fischer told Sludge.
Sinema has also taken contributions directly from ISPs. So far this year, Sinema’s campaign has received contributions from the PACs of AT&T ($2,000), Verizon ($1,000), and Cox ($2,500), as well as $1,500 from Comcast vice president of federal government affairs Melissa Maxfield. She also received $5,000 each from the PACs of Comcast, NCTA, and Charter through her “Getting Stuff Done” leadership PAC in the second quarter of 2019.
“I have zero questions about why Sinema is doing what she’s doing,” Greer said. “It’s all about the money. She could score easy political points with her constituents by supporting net neutrality, but she’s made a calculated decision to appease her big cable donors instead.”