Days after Comcast Corp. swelled into the nation’s largest cable operator by swallowing AT&T’s cable business last year, executives at the Philadelphia-based firm shifted to their next challenge: hiring a prominent Republican lobbyist to offset Comcast’s reputation as a Democratic company.
By wooing Republican Kerry Knott away from Microsoft last month, Comcast — a company created, run and represented by Democrats — purchased instant credibility within Republican ranks on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration. Before his time at Microsoft, Knott was a top aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).
“To be effective … you have to have the ability to have friends on both sides of the aisle,” said David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive vice president charged with revamping its lobbying operation. “You have to have a Republican face as well as a Democratic face.”
Comcast’s move signals the beginning of what some people on K Street believe is a long-overdue trend in the cable industry, a business traditionally considered the domain of Democrats.
“There has been a perception that the cable industry in general, and maybe Comcast in particular, has had stronger Democratic ties than Republican ties,” said Cohen, himself a Democrat with deep ties to newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Now, as a pair of powerful Congressional Republicans prepare to launch dual legislative assaults against the industry, Comcast and a number of other cable concerns are hoping to forge closer ties with the GOP.
Comcast, Cablevision and even the industry’s Democrat-run trade association — the National Cable and Telecommunications Association — are looking to snatch up available Republican lobbyists and increase their financial support of the GOP, according to industry sources.
The industry’s links to Democrats went unnoticed for years on Capitol Hill because the two leading cable companies, AT&T and AOL Time Warner, employed deep rosters of Republican lobbyists and gave millions of dollars to the Republican Party.
But since Comcast bought out AT&T and AOL shifted priorities from Capitol Hill to Wall Street, the cable industry’s connections to Democrats have become more stark.
Key GOP lawmakers have also stepped up efforts to implement the so-called K Street Project, an effort to torpedo Democratic lobbyists in favor of Republicans. The aggressive campaign has most recently resulted in charges that House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) improperly tried to oust a Democratic mutual fund lobbyist, though his staff has insisted there was no wrongdoing.
People in the cable industry are reading the tea leaves very closely. “It seems that the cable industry has been predominately run by a bunch of Democrats,” said one Democratic lobbyist in the industry. “Cable’s luck of not being attacked on Capitol Hill is running out.”
To be sure, cable companies have routed far more money to the GOP than it did before Republicans took over the House, Senate and White House. They also have hired a slew of Republican lobbying firms to make their case on Capitol Hill and before the Federal Communications Commission.
But they have done little to hire Republicans to senior-level positions in their in-house lobbying shops. In fact, the industry as a whole has dropped a Republican or two, most notably last summer when the NCTA quietly dumped Peggy Binzel in favor of Democrat David Krone.
Binzel, who once worked for then-Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas), was close with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). The NCTA also eased out GOP political operative David Beckwith, who helped elect Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in November.
The NCTA is run by Robert Sachs, a onetime aide to former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), as well as Krone, a confidant of Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).
In contrast, the rival National Association of Broadcasters is headed by Eddie Fritz, a likable Mississippian revered by Republicans, and stocked with GOP lobbyists.
Meanwhile, NCTA’s only senior Republican, former Reagan administration official Pam Turner, reports directly to Krone.
“How does a major trade association not have any Republicans out there?” asked one Democratic cable lobbyist. “Republicans have the trifecta — you need the right balance.”
The NCTA believes it has the right partisan mix. “We think of ourselves as a very balanced shop, indeed a very balanced industry,” said Rob Stoddard, a spokesman for the trade association.
Stoddard also noted cable issues typically do not break down along party lines. “It has not been our experience that partisanship rules or dictates cable issues,” he said.
Nevertheless, Stoddard quickly listed a number of GOP consultants on NCTA’s payroll, such as former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Mark Buse, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who’s now with ML Strategies; and former House GOP aides Catherine Nolan and Jeff MacKinnon.
Other industry sources said the NCTA is looking to pick up a Republican or two for its Washington office. Stoddard said he was unaware of such a search.
The NCTA also has shifted its political contributions in order to distribute more money to Republicans. In the 2002 election cycle, the NCTA gave $545,000, or 57 percent of its total contributions, to Republican candidates and parties. Before Congressional Republicans came to power in 1994, the trade group gave as little as one-quarter of its campaign funds to the party.
Despite the shift in giving at the NCTA, the companies themselves continue to give most of their contributions to Democrats.
According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, the nation’s six largest players give most of their $2.4 million in contributions to Democrats.
Industry leaders Comcast and AOL Time Warner gave slightly more money to Democrats than Republicans in the last cycle, while Cablevision Systems gave three times as much to Democrats as Republicans.
The figures do not include contributions from individuals, such as a $250,000 check sent from one company executive to the Republican National Committee.
Among the few Republican-leaning firms, Charter Communications gave 53 percent of its donations to Republicans and Adelphia Communications gave nearly all of its contributions to the GOP. But that did not protect Adelphia from bankruptcy last year — nor prevent its chief executive from being hauled off in handcuffs for allegedly defrauding investors.
Cox Communications, another leading cable company, refuses to donate to politicians because it also owns a string of television stations and newspapers. The firm was founded by three-term Ohio Gov. James Cox, a Democrat, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1920 with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his vice presidential candidate.
Today, Cox is one of the few cable concerns to house a Washington office run by a Republican, Alexander Netchvoldoff, who served for nearly two decades as chief of staff to then-Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.).
Netchvoldoff says it makes little difference whether lobbyists are Republican or Democratic. “I just don’t think Democrat or Republican,” he said. “I just think about the policies.”
Regardless, Cox’s Netchvoldoff and Comcast’s Knott may soon be joined by a Republican lobbyist from Cablevision, according to industry sources.
Though at least one senior Cablevision executive is a generous GOP contributor, the firm has a Democratic reputation in part because several of its top lobbyists are Democrats, including Sheila Mahony, vice president for government and public affairs and a generous Democratic contributor.
Cablevision and the cable industry have done little to reassess their Congressional lobbying rosters recently, in part because the industry has faced no major hostile legislation since the 1992 Cable Act, a bill approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress over then-President George H.W. Bush’s veto.
This year, however, key lawmakers are making plans to push a pair of bills that could cripple the industry at a difficult time in the business.
In the Senate, McCain has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the causes of double-digit rate increases in cable bills, a move that could presage an effort to reregulate rates like Congress achieved in 1992.
“One of two things has to happen,” McCain said recently, “either cable is regulated or there is meaningful competition. And so far, there doesn’t seem to be real meaningful competition.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Tauzin is pushing a digital television bill that would force cable companies to carry scores of digital signals from broadcasters.
“This is a high-stakes poker game and cable is holding a shaky hand,” said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. “The industry can either cut a deal with the broadcasters or Congress will do it for them.”
The increasing pressure from Republicans has worried the industry, causing some to consider adding GOP lobbyists.
Comcast sees another reason for restocking its Washington office. “As the largest cable company in Washington, we have a real need to have a more significant presence in Washington,” Cohen said.
Comcast plans to add four to six full-time lobbyists by the end of next year while boosting the size of its political action committee. Comcast also hopes to build on the goodwill CEO Brian Roberts and Cohen generated when they co-chaired the host committee for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.
Cohen said both he and Roberts, who are Democrats, remain close to several key Republicans, including Pennsylvania Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.
Still, Comcast expects to hire at least a few more Republicans as part of its Washington expansion. “To be effective in the government affairs world, you have to have faces that are appealing to Democrats and Republicans alike,” Cohen said. “That is the right way to construct a government affairs office these days.”