With the National Association of Broadcasters close to naming veteran Republican lobbyist and fundraiser David Rehr as its next president, opposition is mounting from the office Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman continues to pull for Mitch Rose, his former chief of staff who now lobbies for the Walt Disney Co., even as Rose’s hopes to succeed Eddie Fritts as head of the influential trade group appear to be fading.
If the broadcasters’ lobby picks Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Stevens — whose committee holds significant sway over the television industry — may go so far as to refuse to meet with him, a source close to Stevens said.
“I would say they should look at somebody who could get a meeting with the Senator, because that’s a likely outcome,” the source said.
The source added that the comment was not a threat and that the NAB would “make their own decisions and do what they feel is right. But if you had somebody who could get a meeting with the chairman and could come in and talk about the issues, they would be a more likely choice than somebody who had never met the chairman.”
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton declined to comment, pending the association’s final selection, but a senior source at the association doubted that its interests would suffer by picking Rehr.
“Chairman Stevens is a very fair person, someone who has always been a good friend to the broadcasters and the NAB, and it’s unthinkable that someone would even suggest he would consider doing that,” the source said.
Rehr, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story.
Though Rehr may be a “very talented guy,” he “starts with a serious handicap not knowing the issues and not knowing the people,” said Lisa Sutherland, Commerce committee staff director.
“What we’re trying to convey to the board is the importance of having someone who can hit the ground running and won’t need on-the-job training,” she said.
To this point, Rehr’s work in Washington, D.C., has been on small-business issues, not just with the beer wholesalers but also the National Federation of Independent Business and as an aide to the House Small Business Committee and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
Rehr also has been mentioned as a top contender to head the NFIB.
The wrangling over the NAB’s top job comes at a high-stakes moment for the industry in Congress. Broadcasters are negotiating a transition from analog to digital television while fighting to force cable operators to carry all the channels that broadcasters send out over their digital stream.
If he’s selected, Rehr would not be the first major association head with business before the Commerce Committee who ran into trouble with its chairman.
Stevens has been freezing out Dan Glickman, former Agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton, since he took the reins at the Motion Picture Association of America. The tiff between the two dates to the end of the Clinton administration, when Glickman banned road-building projects in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, The Wall Street Journal reported.
So when Hollywood’s Washington representatives need to reach Stevens, they turn to Rose.
“Stevens really likes him,” a movie lobbyist said. “Mitch is a good strategist, a good communicator, and he’s really smart.”
MPAA Executive Vice President John Feehery declined to comment on the situation, but David Urban and Carl Thorsen, who lobby for the movie industry on behalf of the American Continental Group, confirmed that Rose frequently is tapped to carry key messages to Stevens on behalf of the association.
“When it’s fourth and inches, you’re going to give it to your best ball-carrier to get you over the line,” Urban said.
If Rose does not get the top job at the NAB, he could find himself playing a similar role for the broadcasters, this time reaching out to Stevens on behalf of the man who edged him out.
ABC, which is owned by Rose’s current employer, Disney, left the NAB two years ago because of a disagreement over media ownership rules. But the network returned to the association in August, and the two are now collaborating lobbying on their top issues.
“Regardless of what the NAB does or doesn’t do, Sen. Stevens’ go-to guy on broadcasting issues will still be Mitch Rose,” Sutherland said.
While Rehr lacks Rose’s background and connections in telecommunications, he has extensive ties to Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill, thanks to his aggressive fundraising both for individual candidates and his association’s political action committee.
He has now also run a trade association, unlike Rose.
It is unclear exactly when the NAB will announce its decision. Fritts, who has led the association for two decades, is set to step down in April but could do so earlier.