Heidi Heitkamp Lobbies Against a Democratic FCC

The former Democratic senator is running misleading ads claiming that FCC nominee Gigi Sohn would be bad for rural America.

Heidi Heitkamp Lobbies Against a Democratic FCC
Former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp

The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.

Sixteen months into the Biden presidency, a Democratic majority on the deadlocked Federal Communications Commission remains elusive. President Biden acted to fill a position made vacant by the transfer of presidential power last October, but Gigi Sohn has drawn skepticism and opposition from players across the aisle. In an America where politics are rarely bipartisan, one has to wonder: What did Sohn do right?

Sohn is seen as a progressive, “boundary-breaking” nomination; she would be the first openly LGBT commissioner in history, and she would also bring the FCC back into Democratic control. A Democratic FCC would almost definitely reinstate net neutrality, the policy that says telecommunications providers must be unbiased toward content flowing through their networks. This has made her potential elevation to the FCC contentious. Sohn is no doubt qualified; as a top aide to former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, she helped formulate the net neutrality policy. As the founder of telecommunications advocacy group Public Knowledge, Sohn has supported a “multipronged strategy” to achieve digital equity, noting the lack of access for different marginalized groups and criticizing past failures to adequately address these disparities.

Thanks to already having two Senate Commerce Committee hearings, Sohn has answered more questions than most nominees. But her confirmation to the commission continues to find obstacles in the way, ones put there by big money.

The myriad of players opposing Sohn include the Fraternal Order of Police, who allege that “Sohn’s social media, public policy stances, and employment history has indicated serious animus towards law enforcement officers and the rule of law.” Their analysis is mostly based on Twitter, where Sohn has retweeted pretty basic views such as “police brutality is bad.” This misdirection was picked up by The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page claimed that Sohn’s nomination puts Democratic senators “at risk” if they vote for her.

Police unions are notoriously conservative, so maybe FOP’s opposition is not surprising, even if it does seem out of place. On the other hand, opposition from the telecom industry, which profits from throttling traffic and sidestepping investment to build out networks so everyone can have affordable internet access, is very much in place. So much so, in fact, that telecom and cable companies are using front groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (which gets a lot of telecom money) to spread their message. Even the Fraternal Order of Police has a partnership with AT&T.

What is more surprising is the intraparty opposition Sohn faces.

One Country Project is a political action committee established by former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, which is “dedicated to reopening the dialogue with rural communities, rebuilding trust and respect, and advancing an opportunity agenda for rural Americans.” This PAC took out a $250,000 ad campaign in six states with members of the Democratic Senate caucus (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, and West Virginia), with the sole purpose of defeating Sohn’s nomination.

The PAC opposes Sohn for what they see as a lack of support for rural communities. The press release for the campaign cites Sohn’s testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she stated that “policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States.”

As others have pointed out, this quote is taken out of context. Sohn is criticizing the fact that despite this investment, many still do not have access, while urban areas are being simultaneously neglected. Sohn also points out in her testimony that the disparities are just as closely tied to race and economics as they are to geography.

The press release links to an op-ed written by Heitkamp where she criticizes Sohn for another quote: “‘What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] $50 billion investment? Not much.’” Heitkamp takes it to mean Sohn believes the federal government has overinvested in rural communities, calling it a “deeply cynical view.” As Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, pointed out for Broadband Breakfast, Sohn’s quote continues immediately to say: “What we don’t want is to be in the position we are today: where we built networks that were for then, and not for now, and not for the future.” Sohn is saying the future of broadband relies on updated technology.

Why, then, would Heitkamp call Sohn “wrong for FCC and Rural America,” even going so far as to say her views are “extremist”? What is the motive to sabotage her own party’s agenda? It may have something to do with Heitkamp’s long-standing ties to both centrism and, specifically, telecommunications providers.

When Heitkamp’s tenure in the Senate came to an end in 2019, she was considered a strong centrist voice, but her time was mired by her voting record that some saw as contrary to her constituents’ issues. To round it out, Heitkamp just had to defend Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been flogged relentlessly for sabotaging the Democratic agenda.

Heitkamp had support from tech companies like Google and banking groups such as Goldman Sachs while in the Senate. Heitkamp’s interests at one point included both Comcast and AT&T as top-20 donors. She got over $107,000 in donations from the telecom industry in the 2018 cycle, when she lost re-election. One Country was started with money left over from Heitkamp’s Senate campaign account.

In addition, staffers for One Country include members of the lobbying firm Forbes Tate, whose clients feature telecoms like Verizon, T-Mobile, Frontier Communications, as well as the Internet & Television Association, a leading telecom trade group.

Recall that Sohn is a big net neutrality advocate, and that her nomination to the FCC would tip the control to Democrats. Elevating Sohn and making Jessica Rosenworcel, another net neutrality proponent, chair would move the FCC closer to reinstating the policy. It was tanked in 2017 by the Republican-controlled FCC. (Rosenworcel was confirmed as chair last December.)

Publicly, Heitkamp “supports” net neutrality, but rallying against Sohn’s nomination adds doubt to how genuine that position is. Sohn’s advocacy for net neutrality and community broadband projects put her nomination directly contrary to the interests of telecommunications providers that have supported Heitkamp’s career.

“Monopolies realize that if they can keep Gigi Sohn off the FCC, they can keep Trump policies in place,” Mitchell said. “And they like those policies.”

With the support of Democrats such as Heitkamp, these monopolies do not have to lobby alone. If the intent is to keep the FCC deadlocked so as to shirk any responsibility, Sohn would surely upend that—and the status quo, too.

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