Triple threat

Kathleen Abernathy, one of three people slated by President George W. Bush to fill open seats on the FCC, can boast a long list of relevant jobs when she seeks Senate confirmation this spring.

That's unusual for a post frequently presented as a political plum, but Abernathy wasn't among the coterie of campaign workers and political allies designated for rewards typical of a change in administration.

In fact, her designation may be due as much to last-minute GOP self-consciousness over its "rich white guy" image as to either payback from grateful party patrons or her impressive résumé. Well into its search for a new crop of FCC commissioners, Bush's transition team abruptly began looking for women to round out the slate of potential nominees after realizing that its original short list included only men.

Adding a touch of irony to the last-minute effort to include a woman in a roster of key jobs, Abernathy's husband, Charles, is one of America's leading experts in civil-rights law.

Washington players now are looking past the last-minute search and praising the Bush administration for its good sense in picking Abernathy, 44, for the FCC post. Bush plans to nominate former campaign aide and FCC staffer Kevin Martin and Clinton Administration trade official Michael Copps to the other open seats.

Although Abernathy's exposure to broadcast and cable issues is limited, she has spent well over a decade as a telecommunications regulator, lawyer and lobbyist.

Her breadth of telcom experience is a little unusual for a commissioner, and it's unclear whether she wanted the job or was doing the GOP a favor. Two other women considered along with Abernathy would have been more difficult picks for the Republicans. Rebecca Armendariz, an aide on Bush's gubernatorial staff, served with Martin on the White House telcom transition team, and it would have raised eyebrows for both to be named. Janis Obuchowski, former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, worked with NxtWave Communications and would have faced political opposition due to the bankrupt company's court battle with the FCC over control of auctioned spectrum.

Abernathy, who hasn't been formally nominated by Bush, followed the convention of federal nominees awaiting confirmation and declined to comment.

People who have worked with Abernathy say her experience has given her not only the expertise for the job but a well rounded sense of how to balance a commissioner's public-interest obligations with a duty to ensure that over-regulation does not hamper the telecommunications industry.

Also, given that she has worked for both telephone and wireless companies—generally rival industries—Abernathy isn't expected to favor either sector.

"Her biggest strength is experience," says Lawrence Sarjeant, general counsel for the U.S. Telecom Association. "No one should feel she will come with a particular bias."

Abernathy's regulatory experience comes from a 1991-93 stint as a staff attorney in the General Counsel's office, then as a common-carrier and telecommunications adviser to Commissioner Sherrie Marshall and acting Chairman James Quello.

"She's a very bright, compassionate Republican with a bipartisan approach," says Quello, a Democrat whose deregulatory philosophy made fans of many a Republican.

Before joining the FCC, Abernathy was federal-affairs director for Comsat. Since leaving that agency, she has held similar posts with phone companies Pacific Telesis and US West, the wireless company AirTouch and high-speed-data–technology provider Broadband Office.

She also was partner at Washington firm Wilkenson, Barker, and Knauer in 1999-2000.

Broadcast and cable lawyers know her best from her 1996-97 tenure as president of the Federal Communications Bar Association.

"She's a terrific choice," says David Donovan, lobbyist for the Association of Local Television Stations. "She's smart and very knowledgeable about the industries involved."

Former law partner Kathryn Zachem says the FCC is lucky to get someone of her caliber. "She's had very high-level jobs compared to many who've joined the commission," says Zachem.

Her focus has been on wireless in the past few years, and some of the biggest issues in that industry will likely dominate the industry sectors regulated by the FCC during her tenure, Zachem continues. "Kathy has become an expert in broadband deployment, rights of way issues and deregulation," she observes.

Abernathy's views on telcom policy haven't garnered much press, although wireless-trade publications expressed concerns that Congress' desire to use spectrum auctions as a budget bonanza might not be the best way to manage the airwaves. "You either want to raise money or do some social good," she said during a 1996 conference sponsored by the Personal Communications Industry Association.