FCC Chief Shops for Opportunity

Posted December 19, 2007 at 6:45pm

In North Carolina, it’s hard to squeeze campaign blood from a political turnip. And for politically curious Kevin Martin (R), that may mean sitting out two, three, perhaps even four election cycles until a Senate spot, the governor’s mansion or a House seat opens up in the Tar Heel State that the FCC chairman could run for.

Martin declined to discuss his political future with Roll Call. But given the typical turnover following presidential elections, he likely will leave his job at the Federal Communications Commission when President Bush’s successor starts bestowing new White House spoils on campaign patrons late next year.

So what then for the 41-year-old Charlotte native, who is touted as an up-and-comer in North Carolina GOP circles and who media reports suggest regularly dips his toes in the state’s electoral waters?

A former Bush campaign lawyer, Martin worked on telecommunications issues for the president’s transition team and earlier worked for Ken Starr, the independent counsel during the Clinton administration. He started at the FCC more than six years ago.

Martin also was student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of the UNC Association of Student Governments.

“Folks that know Kevin Martin know that he’s a rising star in our party,” a North Carolina Republican insider said. “It would not surprise me that he’d come back to North Carolina at one point” to run for political office.

Martin has returned frequently to North Carolina on agency business, visiting the state at least four times in 2007, according to local media reports. In late November, Martin announced $400 million in grants at a Greenville, N.C., press conference. He spoke in August to the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

But while Martin’s apparent political ambition is no secret, recent developments in the state are aligning a very inhospitable political constellation for a near-term Martin run. Once said to be considering an open-seat 2008 gubernatorial run, Martin would become Republican candidate No. 5. in the race, should Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory announce his candidacy in the coming weeks, as many North Carolina Republicans expect.

“It would be very difficult for someone without the stature of Sen. Elizabeth Dole [R-N.C.] to move back to North Carolina and run for governor,” a state GOP source said.

The source then conceded that six Republicans filled out the GOP primary ticket in 2004, when Gov. Mike Easley (D) won his second term.

But with wealthy frontrunners Bill Graham and Fred Smith likely being joined by McCrory, who would start out with $500,000 in his campaign account, the source said the barrier likely is too steep for Martin with just six months until the primary.

“There are candidates … who are well- financed, who have been running for a while,” the source said. “I don’t see a scenario where he could jump … and be the hands-down favorite. Those guys have been running hard for so long now.”

Rep. Sue Myrick’s (R) Charlotte-area district logistically poses perhaps the softest landing spot for the homegrown Martin. Myrick, who once had her eyes on the governor’s mansion, will run for an eighth term next year and a state GOP source speculated that this race could be her last.

But even if Myrick were to step aside in 2010, another state GOP source said the queue of potential Myrick successors is quite long and headed up by yet-unannounced 2008 gubernatorial candidate McCrory, who would be the odds-on favorite to succeed her in three years if he doesn’t become governor.

Another possibility for Martin, a GOP source offered, could be Rep. Robin Hayes’ (R) eastern Charlotte district, should high school teacher Larry Kissell (D) knock off the five-term incumbent next year, as he nearly did in 2006. Still, some state Republican political insiders doubt a once-powerful FCC chairman, who could be worth millions of dollars in the private sector, would bother trying to run for the House.

“I don’t view that as a promotion,” the GOP source said of a potential House run by Martin.

After her difficult tenure last year heading up the National Republican Senatorial Committee fueled speculation that she may face formidable 2008 primary opposition, Dole likely will skate until next November, sources claim, when she’ll face either state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) or openly gay investment banker Jim Neal (D).

And with Dole’s campaign account inching toward $2.5 million and only two months until the filing deadline, state Republican insiders doubt Martin could mount a serious challenge in such a limited timeframe.

“She’s not going to face a primary [challenger],” a GOP source speculated.

In the unlikely event that the political bug doesn’t escape Martin, and plum corporate offers prove elusive, a state GOP insider said that the ballot spot for the state’s insurance commissionership remains vacant.

But “that’s not a real high-profile job,” the source said.