Martin in the middle

by David Hatch, National Journal

He's young, ambitious, politically savvy and under relentless fire from a Democratic Congress. With a presidential election looming that could bump him from his leadership post, some are asking: What's next for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin? A persistent rumor is that he'll step down early, perhaps to run for political office in his native North Carolina. But does the conjecture have any merit?

"I've heard all of the rumors and I've just started to discount them," said an observer, one of several to request anonymity. "He doesn't strike me as a natural politician," added another, noting that "he's kind of quiet and contemplative."

Fueling the speculation is the heat that Martin, a Republican, has taken from Democrats since they regained the majorities in Congress. He's already testified under hostile conditions before Senate and House committees that have vowed to keep him and his agency on a tight leash.

There's also the perception that Martin, who is only 40, is eager for new challenges. He became an FCC commissioner in 2001, meaning that if he remains until his second term expires in 2011, he will have served at the agency for a decade.

With close ties to the Bush administration and the deep-pocketed communications sector, it's no wonder many FCC watchers think Martin is heading for the door. He worked as deputy general counsel on President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and was the chief telecommunications and technology adviser to the Bush-Cheney transition team. His wife, Catherine, is a White House staffer.

A Democratic president would replace him in 2009, forcing him to leave or accept a demotion to commissioner -- something that Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public-interest telecommunications law firm, said hasn't happened in at least 50 years. "By custom, and only by custom, chairmen tend to leave rather than stay on," he said.

If a Republican wins, he's more likely to keep his job, but there are no guarantees, and some think he won't stay around long enough to find out.

"If he's going to leave the FCC, he has a very short window of time in which to do it," Schwartzman added, explaining that an exit around Labor Day would leave the White House with enough time and leverage to confirm a replacement through political horse-trading with Senate Democrats before Congress adjourns for the year.

Leaving before June 1, however, would be risky because GOP regulator Robert McDowell is recused on several matters until then, due to his previous affiliation with an industry group. As a result, the Democrats would temporarily be in the majority on some items.

If Martin departs after Congress adjourns, the president could make a recess appointment, but it would only last for about a year and Senate Democrats would grumble about being bypassed.

If he leaves next year, Democrats seeking to make mischief during the run-up to the election would likely tie up the replacement's nomination. That would keep the FCC evenly split along party lines, empowering the Democratic regulators.

The most talked-about option for Martin is entering North Carolina's gubernatorial race. With Democratic Gov. Mike Easley stepping down due to term limits, it will be a wide-open contest in 2008. So far, no blockbuster names have surfaced on the GOP side, with Salisbury lawyer Bill Graham, state Sen. Fred Smith and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr announcing so far.

Some observers point to Martin's March 5 public appearance at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as evidence that he's testing the waters. While in town to inaugurate UNC's Center for Media Law and Policy, he garnered some high-profile local headlines. "FCC chairman calls for a la carte cable service," proclaimed the Raleigh News & Observer.

"[It's] not a bad way to start your run," a source said of the coverage. Others said that liberal Chapel Hill is not the place to launch a Republican campaign and, as a Washington insider, Martin might be maligned as a carpetbagger.

And there's this wrinkle: a key GOP operative in the state discounts the theory. "I have heard absolutely nothing whatsoever about it," said Linda Daves, chairwoman of the North Carolina Republican Party. A related whisper, that Martin would seek the seat of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., appears implausible given that Dole has pledged to seek re-election in 2008.

"His only plans are to work hard serving the American people here at the commission for the remainder of his term," FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin said. That seems clear enough, but then again, Martin could always change his mind. Note the lack of a categorical denial that the chairman will seek elected office.

Another theory is that Martin is angling for a gig on Wall Street or K Street. While he's made several presentations to financial analysts, some observers said that is standard operating procedure for a GOP FCC chairman.

"A rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way," someone once said. Well, at least we know that much is true.

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