President Biden's effort to get a Democratic majority at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is about to be further derailed, this time by members of his party.
One Country Project – a Democratic political action committee led by former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, that lobbies federal lawmakers on rural issues – announced that it is launching a "six-figure ad campaign aimed at raising awareness that the Biden administration's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee, Gigi Sohn, is the wrong choice for the FCC and rural America."
The ads will run in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Maine and West Virginia "highlighting Sohn's poor track record when it comes to prioritizing rural Americans."
A press release announcing the campaign links to an op-ed written by Heitkamp referencing comments Sohn made as evidence of her "deeply cynical view of rural broadband efforts."
Those comments include Sohn saying in House testimony that "policymakers have focused disproportionately on broadband deployment in rural areas of the United States."
As well as an April 2021 interview with Bloomberg Government, where Sohn said, "What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] $50 billion investment? Not much."
Further, said Heitkamp: "Sohn also criticized the FCC broadband policies and claimed they 'made it really easy' for rural broadband companies 'to basically suck at the government teat to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.'"
"How can Democrats support rural broadband expansion and also support Gigi Sohn?" writes Heitkamp. "Sohn, the Biden Administration's nominee for FCC Commissioner, has made numerous public statements that call into question whether she will work to bring broadband to all rural Americans expeditiously."
Not all rural advocacy organizations think alike, however. NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, a trade group representing small broadband providers in the rural US, confirmed to Broadband World News that the group continues to support Sohn's nomination and is disappointed with the decision of One Country Project to engage in this campaign.
Indeed, NTCA recently signed onto a letter to Senate leaders urging Sohn's confirmation.
"While we may have disagreements with Sohn on specific issues, we firmly believe she is highly qualified for the position. Sohn has extensive experience in technology and telecommunications policy and a long record of seeking bipartisan solutions.
"Moreover, she is widely respected as a passionate defender of free speech, a pragmatic thinker, a supporter of substantive and open debate, and a strong advocate to expand access to affordable broadband and critical technologies, values we believe are highly desirable for an FCC Commissioner," states the letter signed by NTCA, as well as the Consumer Technology Association, Chamber of Progress, CompTIA, Computer & Communications Industry Association, Internet Infrastructure Coalition and INCOMPAS.
Further, write the organizations, the "absence of a fifth Commissioner hamstrings the agency when U.S. leadership on technology policy is most needed."
Sohn's confirmation process has been rocky from the start. Despite an outpouring of support from all sides of the political spectrum, Sohn has also suffered a range of successful attacks on everything from her ties to defunct live broadcast streamer Locast to her tweets about Fox News.
She was also dragged through a second confirmation hearing in February so Republican Senators could follow up on the concerns they raised at her first hearing in December.
Now the attacks on Sohn are about to come from a small sector of Democrats.
It's somewhat unclear why One Country Project is zeroing in on Sohn's nomination as its key issue, particularly since most of the rural broadband funding from the Biden administration's infrastructure law is being distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and not the FCC. Further, FCC nominees rarely draw this level of controversy.
Where Sohn's voice may matter most is on a net neutrality vote. Net neutrality rules that were established under the Obama administration were revoked under Trump, and the FCC is expected to take up the issue again if and when the full Commission is in place.
One Country Project's leadership team includes several former moderate Democratic lawmakers, including Heitkamp as well as former Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, and Mike Espy, former Mississippi Congressman and Secretary of the USDA under the Clinton administration.
There also appears to be connections between One Country Project and the lobbying organization Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan organization that runs campaigns "that leverage the right approach at the right time to navigate tough policy landscapes, solve problems, and improve business outcomes for our clients," according to its site.
The Intercept first reported on a possible connection in 2019, when One Country Project was pushing an effort against Medicare for All, a policy pursued by progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). According to the Intercept's reporting, One Country Project's website was listed as registered to an executive at Forbes Tate Partners at the time.
Since then, One Country Project also listed Forbes Tate Partners as the host for its virtual Rural Progress Summit in October 2021.
Forbes Tate Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its connection to One Country Project and the campaign against Sohn.
However, an email from Broadband World News to One Country Project's media contact listed on its press release about Sohn ([email protected]), inquiring about the connection between the organization and Forbes Tate, resulted in an automatic reply from an individual with a Forbes Tate Partners email address saying they no longer work at Forbes Tate – and the suggestion to "please reach out to" followed by a blank space:
Notably, the campaign seems poised to target moderate and vulnerable senators who may feel reluctant to vote for Sohn ahead of the November midterm elections which will determine control of Congress for the rest of Biden's first term. Three of the states where the ads are running – Arizona, Nevada and Colorado – all have Senate Democrats on the ballot this year. Ads will also run in Montana and West Virginia, where Jon Tester and Joe Manchin, both moderate Democrats, face reelection in 2024.
The ads also are targeting Maine, home to moderate Republican Susan Collins; and Alaska, where moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski is on the ballot in November.
In an interview with Politico, Heitkamp said of the push against Sohn: "We're going to focus on where we think the greatest political impact will be for members who vote for her."
Whatever the impetus for the Dem-led anti-Sohn campaign, another organized offensive against Biden's FCC nominee this far down the line doesn't bode well for the Commission gaining a Democratic majority, or being un-hamstrung, anytime soon.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.