Julius Genachowski, a one-time FCC general counsel and high-tech businessman, is, according to all reports, President Obama’s choice to become the next FCC chairman.
If so, when he finally takes his seat, he’ll be looking for support for his agenda from the two other Democratic commissioners that the law allows on the five-person agency during a Democratic administration.
One of his fellow Democrats and nominal allies will be Michael Copps, who is now enjoying a run as interim chairman while Genachowski is vetted, nominated and confirmed — a process that could take a few months.
The other will likely be a South Carolinian little known within Washington’s insular communications policy-making world. She is Mignon Clyburn, currently in her 11th year as a member of the Public Service Commission of South Carolina.
Clyburn would replace Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, whose FCC term expired last year, but who may continue serving at the FCC until the end of this year or until a replacement is appointed.
Clyburn has attributes that will surely help in landing the FCC job, which will raise her annual income from $99,400 to $158,500.
Mignon Clyburn and her family gathered in the office of her father Jim Clyburn shortly after he was elected the House majority whip in 2007. From left to right: son-in law Walter Reed; daughter Jennifer Clyburn Reed; grandson Walter A. Clyburn Reed; daugthers Angela and Mignon Clyburn; wife Emily England Clyburn; Jim Clyburn; and granddaughter Sydney Alexis Reed.
Clyburn is a woman and an African-American — helpful in diversity-conscious Washington — and, perhaps most important, she is the daughter of one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
And friends, colleagues and others say she has the ability to do the FCC job.
Her long stretch at the South Carolina PSC and her experience running The Coastal Times, a small, weekly African-American newspaper in Charleston, proves she has the temperament, intellect and energy to succeed at the FCC, they say.
Over the years, Clyburn has gained a solid reputation at the PSC and is considered a “bright, young woman and quick study,” says Robert Behre, a political reporter for Charleston’s The Post and Courier.
Clyburn declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
If Clyburn arrives at the FCC, it would be the culmination of a long-range career goal, says one former colleague.
“She’s always really wanted to go to the FCC,” says William Saunders, the former owner of WPAL-AM Charleston and a one-time NAB board member. “That was her dream. She’s been working hard to get there.”
Saunders knows Clyburn since her days at The Coastal Times and as a fellow PSC commissioner. They served together on the South Carolina PSC from 1998 until Saunders left in 2004.
“She’s done her homework,” says Saunders, who is out of radio now and is the chief executive officer of the Charleston-based Committee on Better Racial Assurance.
In South Carolina, the PSC has jurisdiction over telecommunications, investor-owned electric and natural gas companies, privately-owned water and sewer companies as well as some transportation systems (passenger carriers, household goods movers and hazardous waste for disposal carriers).
The state’s General Assembly elects PSC commissioners to four-year terms. Clyburn was first elected in 1998; her current term ends June 30, 2010. Clyburn chaired the PSC from 2002 until 2004.
She represents the PSC’s sixth district, the same as her father’s congressional district.
The Coastal Times may have been the elder Clyburn’s brainchild, but Mignon ran the paper from 1984 when she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BS in banking, finance and economics to when she was first elected to the PSC in 1998.
The Costal Times was “her baby,” Saunders says.
“Clyburn has been a virtual one-woman show behind The Coastal Times, editing, selling ads and distributing one of two black newspapers in the Charleston area,” reported The Post and Courier when Clyburn left for the PSC.
The Coastal Times, which seems to have folded after Clyburn departed, had a circulation of about 5,500 free and paid copies, mostly to black churches, according to Behre of The Post and Courier.
“I don’t think it was a big money maker or a big enough operation to where she could sell it to another publisher,” Behre says.
Although Congressman Clyburn’s columns ran in the newspaper, the paper was far less outspoken than its chief rival in the African-American community, The Charleston Chronicle.
“I don’t look at myself as an activist and I’ve gotten criticism for that,” Mignon told The Post and Courier.
Even though the Coastal Times was small then, the experience may color how Clyburn approaches issues at the FCC, says Jay Bender, a long-time family friend and lawyer who teaches media law at the University of South Carolina and currently represents the South Carolina Broadcasters Association and the South Carolina Press Association.
“There is no question that she has great respect for the First Amendment,” Bender says. “I am not sure where we got that crowd of prudes that’s been in charge of the FCC. I think she would be a vast improvement.”
The 46-year-old Clyburn has never been married. She maintains her residence in Charleston, making the 115-mile commute to her PSC job in Columbia.
She has been active in the Young Women’s Christian Association of Greater Charleston. And she has chaired a state board aimed at encouraging at-risk students to get tutoring and counseling.
During her tenure at the PSC, Clyburn has also been an active member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).
She currently chairs NARUC’s Washington Action Program, which promotes the organization’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill.
Coincidentally, Clyburn took over that assignment from Deborah Taylor Tate, a one-time member of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority who just stepped down from a Republican seat on the FCC.
Clyburn has impressed NARUC colleagues.
“She’s good at getting people energized,” says Phil Jones of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission and vice chair of NARUC’s Washington Action Program.
Jones gives her credit for knowing how to “push the buttons in the right places on the Hill either with a member or staff.”
The South Carolina regulator also chairs NARUC’s latest public service campaign on energy conservation called “Anybody Can Serve, So Let’s Conserve.”
Because of her father, some feel that Clyburn’s success is based mostly on nepotism.
Jim French, publisher of the Charleston Chronicle, against which Clyburn’s Coastal Times competed, is among them.
She wasn’t much of a newspaper publisher, he says. “She was never a significant voice or a player.”
French says he would see her at meeting of the National Association of Black Publishers. “I think she went for the recreation.”
And she was unqualified for the PSC job, he says. “She didn’t know a screwdriver from a damn wrench. But we are talking about politics.”
Others don’t agree. “She’s paid her dues,” says Saunders. “Not her father’s dues or anybody else’s dues. She’s entitled [to the job].”
Clyburn also seems to have impressed industry representatives who conduct business before the state commission.
“She would be a great FCC commissioner. She’s very smart and she works hard and has a lot of integrity. She’s very fair,” says Dukes Scott, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency that represents the public’s interest before the PSC. Scott is a former PSC commissioner who served with Clyburn for a year.
“She has a good reputation down here,” says Frank Ellerbe, a lawyer with Robinson, McFadden, who represents the South Carolina Cable Television Association, Time Warner and Duke Energy.
The cable industry’s activity before the PSC involves telephony matters. “She pays close attention during the hearings, frequently asks questions of witnesses that indicates she’s prepared. She’s always pleasant and professional and has a reputation for being even handed,” adds Ellerbe. She looks out for residential consumers, says the cable TV lawyer.
For the most part, the PSC takes a consensus approach to issues. But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of controversial matters to deal with.
Today, the commission may issue a ruling on a proposal by South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. (SCE&G) to build two additional nuclear power plants in the state.
SCE&G is also asking the state commission to permit a rate increase to cover expenses associated with the $10 billion nuclear power project.
“Down here we don’t see the sort of partisan back and forth that occurs at the FCC,” says Ellerbe.
It’s unclear how she might function at the politically-charged FCC.
However, Clyburn’s familiarity with the legal aspects of a regulatory commission — how to have hearings, what rules of evidence are — is a plus, says Ken Robinson, editor and publisher of the Telecommunications Policy Review.
Robinson was the senior legal advisor to former FCC Chairman Al Sikes. He got to know Clyburn at the annual KMB Video Conference dealing with telephone and broadband issues.
He believes she will make a difference because she isn’t driven by politics or prejudices.
“I’ve said over and over again, they have to get somebody who operates that place on a quasi judicial, fact-based basis,” he says.
“You are not supposed to go in there and just express your own personal views. You’re supposed to deal with these things based on facts and based on the relevant statute. They don’t do that. That’s why the FCC is the most reversed federal agency in the government.”
Says Robinson: “I think she’s a breath of fresh air.”