Chair of the Federal Communications Commission: Who Is Tom Wheeler?

Monday, June 03, 2013

The revolving door between big business and government is spinning again. Despite his promise during the 2008 campaign that lobbyists would take a back seat in his administration, President Barack Obama recently nominated a long-time telecommunications lobbyist—who has also donated and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaigns—to serve as the next chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the independent federal agency that plays the principle role in regulating the telecom industry. If confirmed by Senate as expected, Tom Wheeler would succeed Julius Genachowski, also a big Obama donor and bundler, who has been FCC Chair since 2009. 


Born circa 1946, Wheeler earned a B.S. at the Ohio State University in 1968. Getting into telecom during the formative years of cable TV and wireless communications, Wheeler is, as Obama observed, “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame.”


Starting his career at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Wheeler joined the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) in 1976, and was its president (and hence chief lobbyist) from 1979 to 1984. After working as CEO of several technology start-ups, he became the CEO and president of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), from June 1992 to November 2003. Since September 2004, Wheeler has been an executive at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Core Capital Partners, which manages about $350 million in assets.


Wheeler became a political supporter of Barack Obama at the beginning of his 2008 presidential run, serving on his exploratory committee and National Finance Committee. In addition to personally donating up to the legal limit, Wheeler also raised money from others—called bundling—for Obama, to the tune of more than $700,000, and even temporarily relocated to Iowa to campaign for Obama. Wheeler also campaigned in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. After the election, Obama chose Wheeler to lead the transition team’s review of the science, technology, space, and arts agencies. At the time, Wheeler stated publicly that he did not want an administration job.


Appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Geroge W. Bush, Wheeler served as a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for 12 years. He is the former chairman of the Foundation for the National Archives, and board member of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). He serves and has served on the boards of numerous corporations, especially in the telecom field.


Wheeler wrote Take Command: Leadership Lessons of the Civil War (Doubleday, 2000) and Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins, 2006).


Although telecom companies and their lobbies—including both organizations formerly headed by Wheeler—issued statements praising the nominee, some in the public interest community have serious doubts as to his ability to rise above his corporate background. “The Federal Communications Commission needs a strong leader—someone who will use this powerful position to stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest,” said Free Press president Craig Aaron. “On paper, Tom Wheeler does not appear to be that person, having headed not one but two major trade associations. But he now has the opportunity to prove his critics wrong, clean up the mess left by his predecessor, be the public servant we so badly need at the FCC.”


Tom Wheeler is married to Carol Wheeler.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Tom Wheeler, Former Lobbyist and Obama Fundraiser, Tapped to Lead FCC (by Sam Gustin, Time)

Telecom Investor Named to Be F.C.C. Chairman (by Edward Wyatt, New York Times)

Meet Tom Wheeler, the man who could control your digital life (by Chris Ziegler, The Verge)

Mobile Musings (Wheeler's blog)

New Entrant Ethics Forms for Tom Wheeler (U.S. Office of Government Ethics)


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