William H. Gray 3d, former senior pastor of Philadelphia's huge Bright Hope Baptist Church and Second District congressman, has a new career - lobbying for Comcast Corp.
Gray resigned his influential House seat in 1991 to lead the United Negro College Fund. He retired in 2004 and launched the Amani Group in Washington.
Gray's obscure firm earned $390,000 in fees from Comcast last year and is one of many beneficiaries of explosive growth in lobbying by the nation's largest cable TV company, which seeks access to federal lawmakers as it faces a slew of political foes.
Other beneficiaries of Comcast's lobbying blitz: former Reagan-era White House official Kenneth M. Duberstein, former Sen. Don Nickles, and former Philadelphia solicitor Pedro A. Ramos.
"They have PR firms and strategy consultants that they can pull into any given issue very quickly," said Ben Scott, policy director of the left-leaning nonprofit-advocacy group Free Press.
"If Comcast decided to get in front of the 435 members of the House, they could do that in a week. I don't think I could do it in a year."
Added Gigi Sohn, president of the nonprofit Public Knowledge: "Comcast is the big elephant in the room." With its Washington operation, she said, the Philadelphia company "is acting more like a telephone company than a traditional cable company." Cable companies traditionally have been regulated by state and local governments, but they are increasingly drawn into Washington's orbit because of phone and high-speed Internet businesses.
The Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a database on lobbying spending, says Comcast spent $12.5 million in 2008, a huge bump from $570,000 in 2001.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's primary trade group, more than doubled its lobbying to $14.4 million over the same period.
Comcast could use friends in Washington as it faces a public backlash over cable TV prices and concerns that the cable giant will squash competitors on the Internet. An adversarial Federal Communications Commission, led by former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, called for the company to tighten standards on obscenities and nudity on cable TV and to change how it sells entertainment and news. Comcast fought him on both counts.
Moreoever, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast's two main competitors, are entrenched Washington powers with close ties to Republicans. They just missed passing national video-franchise legislation in 2006, which would have opened competition in the cable TV market.
AT&T and Verizon also have fattened their lobbying budgets in Washington in the last decade, similar to many corporations seeking favors in the business-friendly Bush administration.
Verizon's lobbying rose to $18 million in 2008 from $8.2 million in 2001. The New York telecom company is investing billions in fiber-optic lines to offer Internet and TV services.
"Since we've been regulated for 50 years, it's not surprising we would have a few people in Washington," said Verizon senior vice president Eric Rabe. He added in a statement: "Verizon has had to battle the cable industry for the right to offer consumers a better alternative to the cable bundle. Winning TV franchises, gaining sports programming, and creating a level field for competition help account for our need to communicate directly with legislators and policymakers."
AT&T boosted its lobbying to $15.1 million in 2008 from $6.1 million in 2005. AT&T is offering TV services through U-verse, which is not available in the Philadelphia area.
Comcast's Washington office was a low-wattage operation for years. That changed in 2002, when Comcast bought AT&T's broadband division. The same year, Comcast hired David L. Cohen, the former chief of staff to Ed Rendell when he was Philadelphia mayor. One of his assignments was Washington, where Comcast now has about 20 employees.
"As Comcast has grown from a small regional cable company to one of the nation's largest media and telecommunications companies, the regulatory and legislative issues confronting us have become increasingly more complex," said Sena Fitzmaurice, an executive director of corporate communications. "At any given time, there are a variety of topics in multiple forums that can affect our customers, our employees, and the competitive environment. It is important for us to be engaged and a part of these discussions."
The Center for Responsive Politics gathers lobbying expenditures from the Senate Office of Public Records. The data are available online through www.opensecrets.org and encompasses in-house corporate lobby staffs and outside lobbyists.
Comcast's main focus with its lobbying: influencing Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Commerce Committees and officials at the FCC.
Gray, a former majority whip and chairman of the House Budget Committee, has close ties to the Democratic Party and African American political leaders.
African Americans and minority groups were political allies in Comcast's opposition to FCC's a-la-carte programming plan, which would allow consumers to buy entertainment and other programming by individual channels instead of bundles of channels.
Comcast has said the plan would make it hard for channels aimed at minorities to survive commercially.
Gray's son, Justin, also works for the Amani Group and lobbies on behalf of Comcast. Neither Gray returned phone calls.
Another Democrat-leaning firm in 2008 was Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a Colorado firm that helped organize the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Brownstein earned $360,000 in fees from Comcast last year.
The Republican-leaning Duberstein Group earned the most lobbying fees from Comcast in 2008 - $400,000.
Comcast paid the Nickles Group $250,000. Former Republican Sen. Nickles was from Oklahoma.
Blank Rome L.L.P., the Philadelphia law firm with a lobbying arm, earned $240,000. One of its professionals is Ramos, the former city solicitor. He lobbied for Comcast in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database.
With the new Obama administration, Comcast could face an easier time at the FCC. On the other hand, the Obama administration may seek to tighten regulations on telecom companies. Scott, of Free Press, said that in his experience, lobbying is like a Frankenstein monster. Once a company starts, "it's hard to stop," he said.