Washington— Federal Communications Commission member Gloria Tristani will pack her boxes and head home to New Mexico this week — probably to gear up for a U.S. Senate run.
Tristani, a Democrat appointed by President Clinton, said in May that she planned to leave the FCC by year-end to explore a bid against Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, a five-term incumbent who introduced Tristani at her Senate confirmation hearing in 1997.
Tristani's Sept. 7 departure from the FCC — after nearly four years in office — creates a Democratic vacancy for President Bush to fill and the Democratic-controlled Senate to confirm.
The guessing game as to who may replace Tristani has already begun. A lot depends on whether the White House feels the need to find someone quickly.
With or without a replacement for Tristani, Republicans will remain in control of three of five FCC seats — which could convince the White House that perhaps there is no great rush to find a candidate.
On the other hand, Senate politics might force the White House to reconsider its options. If Senate Democrats want to quickly add a second party stalwart to the FCC, they could warn the Bush administration that delaying a pick might cause problems for pending Bush appointees to federal courts, agencies, departments or embassies.
In something of a surprise, former cable-industry lobbyist and Internet executive David Krone has emerged as a strong candidate for Tristani's seat. A Democrat who has given about $46,000 to Democratic candidates and political committees since 1997, Krone could have the backing of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)
Krone declined to comment.
Krone, 34, is a former Washington lobbyist for Tele-Communications Inc. He has strong ties to Leo Hindery, who helped lead TCI before chairman John Malone decided to sell the Colorado-based cable company to AT&T Corp. in 1999.
For a brief time, Krone served as executive vice president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He left the cable trade group in February 2000 to reunite with Hindery at Global Center, the Internet-hosting subsidiary of Global Crossing Holdings Inc. that helped introduce Krone to Silicon Valley.
Krone is associated with Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, a Washington lobbying firm and the NCTA's highest paid outside lobbyist as reported by the trade group under disclosure laws. He is also associated with HL Capital Inc., Hindery's private-investment firm.
Other candidates for the post include Kathleen Wallman, chief of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau under chairman Reed Hundt. She left to join the Clinton White House as a telecommunications-policy adviser.
A close adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, Wallman left the White House to run her own Washington lobbying organization. Since 1999, Wallman and her husband Steven, a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commissioner, have donated a combined $60,000 to Democratic candidates and party organizations.
Other names to surface last week were Greg Rohde, a former aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who was director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Clinton administration; Andy Levin, an aide to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); Bob Rowe, a member of the Montana Public Service Commission; and Chris McLean, an aide to former Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) and Rural Utilities Service administrator in the Clinton administration. McLean is vice president of National Strategies, a Washington consulting firm.
WOULD RAISE HACKLES
Krone's nomination would likely prove controversial. Because of his private-industry background, state utility regulators who'd like to see one of their own at the FCC would likely oppose the pick. Tristani was elected to the New Mexico State Corporation Commission and served as chairman in 1996.
On Aug. 27, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners sent the White House a letter urging Bush to appoint a state utility commissioner to the FCC.
Tristani's resignation, NARUC said, "robs the [FCC] of a valuable store of experience and needed perspective at a critical period of the transition to a more competitive telecommunications market."
Local broadcasters are another potential problem for Krone. Last week, some in the TV station lobby were already groaning about a possible Krone appointment.
Broadcasters evidently fear Krone would side with the cable industry on key regulatory issues, including whether operators should be required to carry both the analog and digital signals of broadcast-TV stations during the transition to digital-only broadcasting.
Krone's close association with Hindery might also prove a liability. Over the last few years, Hindery, his wife Deborah and their daughter Robin have given about $1 million to Democratic groups and candidates. Just last week, Hindery used an interview in Barron's
magazine to protest the Bush administration's tax policies, calling the recently passed tax cut "rude" and "shockingly insensitive."
At the FCC, Tristani fought media consolidation and smutty radio talk broadcast at times when children were expected to be in the listening audience. She also urged Hollywood to include more minorities in the casts of primetime TV shows.
She was a strong backer of the of the V-chip, the program-blocking circuit contained in most new TV sets, and fought to fund the FCC program designed to wire schools and libraries to the Internet at cheap rates.
Tristani had been cast by some as anti-business, particularly in connection with the America Online Inc.-Time Warner Inc. merger. Tristani held up FCC approval of that deal for months until she extracted concessions from AOL with respect to opening its next-generation instant-messaging services to competitors.
SHE HAD PRIORITIES
As one media-industry source explained, it was not necessarily correct to label Tristani "anti-business" in the context of AOL Time Warner, because she advocated merger conditions intended to help the new company's instant-messaging rivals, including Microsoft Corp.
Tristani was criticized for not showing enough interest in a broad range of industry battles, preferring instead to focus on her chief priorities.
"If you were in there defending Howard Stern, you probably didn't have a very good meeting," an industry source said.
But the source gave Tristani credit for remaining dogged on radio-indecency issues and for repeatedly pointing out how many complaints were dismissed on regulatory technicalities.
"I'll give her credit for being Johnny One-Note on this," the source said.
Domenici, elected in 1972, is a strong incumbent who will be tough to be beat. He reportedly has about $1 million in his campaign war chest, helped in part by a $400,000 fundraiser in New Mexico on Aug. 15, at which Bush appeared. A granddaughter of the late U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez (D-N.M.), Tristani has held statewide office in New Mexico and has more name recognition than most challengers.
American Enterprise Institute political scientist Norman Ornstein did not rule out a Tristani upset.
"You'd have to say it's an uphill battle," Ornstein said. "On the other hand, every senator who is strong has to worry about a strong opponent.
"Gloria Tristani, who will presumably be the opponent, has some strengths — her Hispanic heritage, she is reasonably well-known in the state and she can be a dynamic campaigner. She's a woman, she's a fresh face."
New Mexico Democratic Party chairwoman Diane Denish said Tristani is also considering a run against Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), but would likely decide to take on Domenici.
"I think that's where her heart is — running for the Senate," Denish said. "There is no denying that it's a formidable task. However, I do think [Domenici] is vulnerable to a challenge."