The NAB president says neither his partisan past nor a slight GOP tilt to his government relations team will impair the association’s effectness in the House now that the Democrats are in charge.
After 14 years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill, can the NAB deal with the new Democratic order?
Absolutely, said NAB President David Rehr in an interview just prior to the elections and in anticipation of a Democratic victory. “I will match our team of hand-picked people on the Democratic side against any Democratic lobbyists in the telecommunications industry in this town.”
In yesterday’s midterm elections, the Democrats won a majority of the seats in the House of Representative, which means that Democrats will rise to the chairmanship of the committees in the next Congress and set the legislative agenda. At press time, the Democrats still had a shot at taking control of the Senate, too.
For broadcasters, the most important change is the restoration of John Dingell (Mich.) as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ed Markey (Mass.) as chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, another key post.
Rehr, who joined the NAB just a year ago from the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), dismissed suggestions that he and his “hand-picked” government relations team are too Republican to get their way on the Hill.
Rehr defended the partisan balance of his government relations office and he downplayed his Republican past as a backer of Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader whose aggressive partisan tactics alienated many Democrats. (DeLay resigned his seat earlier this year after being indicted for campaign finance violations.)
“This is a competitive market,” Rehr said. “I believe there are probably some Democratic lobbyists who want to be higher on the pecking order and who might say, ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“You know what, because he’s [Rehr’s] a Republican, people aren’t going to give the NAB as much due as they could.’
“I think that’s hogwash,” he said.
NAB government relations office may be bipartisan, but it still leans Republican.
It’s headed by a Republican, Doug Wiley, and two of the three vice presidents are Republicans—Mildred Webber, a former aide to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, and Kelly Cole, who was majority counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee under Chairman Joe Barton.
Although Wiley worked for a Republican congressman early in his career, he has never been overtly partisan, Rehr said.
Wiley came from the Electronics Industries Alliance, which represents an industry that is “not very partisan” and is run by former Democratic congressman Dave McCurdy, Rehr pointed out.
Plus, Rehr said, “he has the Wiley name behind him, which is a law firm which works with everybody.” Wiley’s father is Richard Wiley, an influential Republican communications attorney, former FCC chairman and partner at Wiley, Rein & Fielding.
It would be hard to spin Webber’s history as nonpartisan. She once worked as Tom DeLay’s director of coalitions, responsible for rallying outside support for the Republicans’ political agenda among lobbyists and businesses. She is also recognized for helping DeLay land the job of House Majority Whip in 1994.
The Democrats in government relations at NAB are Laurie Knight, Mike Mullen and Jamie Gillespie. Knight, also a vice president, was at NBWA with Rehr. Her Hill experience includes working for former Texas Congressman Jim Turner.
Rehr says Knight is “very close” to the Democrat’s House leadership, including probable Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn ( S.C.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and John Larsen (Conn.).
Mullen was on the staff of House Telecommunications Subcommittee member Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). Gillespie is a former Democratic staffer for the Senate Commerce Committee.
And there’s NAB’s new outside political clout—former Texas Democratic congressman Max Sandlin. He’s now with Greenberg Traurig, one of Washington’s top legal and lobbying firms.
Sandlin is “also very close to the Pelosi wing of the Democratic House and is extremely close to Mr. Dingell and Mr. Markey,” Rehr said.
(Dennis Wharton, executive VP of NAB and its chief spokesman, said prior to the election that the NAB may hire another top-level Democratic lobbyist, if the Democrats took control.)
Rehr was ready for questions about his DeLay connections. “If you are asking: Will Democrats in the House and Senate work with David Rehr? The answer is yes they will,” Rehr said.
“The difference between the David Rehr at the NBWA and the David Rehr at the NAB is that the broadcasters have non-ideological, nonpartisan issues and I get that.
“I don’t pretend to be something that I am not. I don’t talk a lot about my Democratic relationships, but I have pretty good ones,” he said. “I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by the number of Democrats who will say, ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“You know what, I know who David is but David’s always been good to me, and I will always be good to David.'”
During the 2004 election cycle, the Rehr-directed NBWA gave 74% of its political action money to Republicans, according opensecrets.org, which tracks political giving.
But, Rehr said, he “equally gave money to a bunch of Democrats” while at NBWA, including Reps. David Scott (Ga.), Joe Crowley (N.Y.), John Larson (Conn.), and Hoyer.
And now, he said, the NAB is giving money to Democrats that did not enjoy broadcaster support before—Democrats like Allen Boyd (Fla.), an Appropriations Committee member. He said Boyd has been soliciting NAB for PAC contributions for years but never received a penny until he came on board. “There is no political litmus test at the NAB.”
Wharton noted that Rehr has been working the Democratic side of the aisle. He said Rehr has met with Dingell on “multiple occasions” and just met with Markey and his top staff. “You cannot be a successful trade association president in Washington without having friends on both side of the political aisle, and David has that,” Wharton said.
Said Rehr: “It’s all being calculated to signal to people that, if you’re a friend of the broadcaster, we’re your friend.”