Sprint Lobbyist Declares Net Neutrality Support

And how that could possibly happen

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The thing about being a journalist, web or otherwise, is you are essentially always on the job, and sometimes you’re on the clock when you least expect it. Rufus Edmisten, former attorney general and secretary of state for North Carolina turned Philip Morris/Sprint/Alltel lobbyist, was informed of my occupation more than once—web journalist, I told him—which didn’t seem to register on any particular level with him.
Sprint Lobbyist Declares Net Neutrality Support
Before this narrative continues in a more linear fashion, let it be said that a lobbyist for Sprint unequivocally expressed the company’s support for Network Neutrality, at least after it was explained to him what Network Neutrality was, despite Sprint’s prior opposition. 

Edmisten never mentioned, and not realizing I was on the job I never asked, what brought him to Louisville, where our paths inexplicably crossed at the historic Brown Hotel, where all the bigwigs stay. I was in town for a biannual residency required by the master’s program I attended at a small, private school downtown, a master’s program specifically for writers. The majority of students and traveling faculty stay at the Brown, and as such this is where the post-academic magic happens.

I encountered Edmisten at the edge of the parking garage, just by the doors to the catwalk leading to the lobby bar, where he swung a large cigar around and teetered upon his toes toward an attractive blonde bartender, who was taking a smoke break. She sat on the concrete ledge of the garage, nothing but sky at her back and this tottering older gentleman in a suit making kissy-faces at her front. I knew neither of them, but when her hand raised skyward and her voice cheerily helloed me, it seemed to me at the moment a clear SOS signal. And so I stopped to chat.

The scene was more comedy than tragedy, though I suppose there was some tragedy to it with this clearly intoxicated man of seemingly obvious wealth continuing unabated by my presence to smooch at her, the expression on her face now a mix of concern and appreciation of a third party. The man introduced himself in an accent oozing with old Southern money, ROO-fus, and very little time passed before he rattled off the various public offices he had once held in the great state of North Carolina: attorney general, secretary of state, lieutenant governor, and US Senator.

I didn’t know at the time, and I suspect Edmisten figured the bartender wouldn’t know that the last two offices were thrown in to heighten his stature, an unnecessary fabrication since, though I can’t speak for the bartender, I was pleased and impressed enough with attorney general and secretary of state, neither of which I’d ever met from any government, state or federal.
Sprint Lobbyist Declares Net Neutrality Support
His bio at his law firm’s website reveals in the 1970’s Edmisten served as Chief Deputy Counsel on the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities under North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, who led the investigations of the Watergate scandal and whose leadership led to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Edmisten would later reveal this part of his history and that he unsuccessfully ran for governor of North Carolina in 1984.

As the three of us unlikely acquaintances stood there chatting, Edmisten produced his law firm’s brochure, and he delineated which famous politicians pictured on it he knew personally. “I sat behind Barack Obama at the inauguration,” he slurred in declaration. I assumed he meant a previous inauguration of some other public figure, but didn’t press him on it as he’d moved along anyway, informing the bartender and myself about how he spent decades helping those who couldn’t help themselves (he’s a Democrat), and nowadays he was committed to making lots and lots of money.

In short, he went to work for the other side.

The bartender finished her smoke, and the three of us made our way to the lobby and took our places in another reality. She went back to tending bar. Edmisten took his seat at the bar among a few well-dressed and young hand-shakers. I joined a table of writers and described what had just occurred and how, if one were to invent a character who was a Southern politician, describing him in the same way one would have to describe old Rufus—his fine drawl, his big stogie, his drunken flirtation, and braggadocios swagger—one would tear up the paper and begin again for fear of writing in clichés.

This crowd of writers, though, was hungrier than I imagined, and were committed to chatting up this man as much as possible. Again, I had not planned to be on the job and had not planned to pay much more attention to Mr. Edmisten, who soon would seem to me like a sheep amongst the wolves. A drunk politician-turned-corporate-lobbyist encircled by very liberal, idealistic writers—good, sharp writers enrolled in one of the toughest MFA programs in the country.

The man had no idea what he’d walked into. On the other hand, all had openly offered their occupations, which did not seem to deter him, or cause him to straighten up or even curb his salty language. My main function from here on out was to watch and learn and when he got himself into some trouble, as he did repeatedly with contradictory and clearly incorrect statements that will not be reproduced here, Edmisten would turn to me as though I were their leader, and look me straight in the eye in a way I immediately understood to mean “Why don’t you call off your dogs, there, whateveryournamewas?”

And I nearly did try that for I felt it might be unfair to him, a man just trying to have some drinks at the Brown, unwittingly stepping into an awkward situation he might not even realize was no good for him. But he never attempted to leave it, or, once again, act like it bothered him, aside from the occasional eye contact with my silent self. When cornered, his words came slower, more measured, but not in a way that skipped any beats for time to think. He was generally very smooth, eloquent, and at times inspiring.

Some of us followed him out on smoke breaks, for there were those of us genuinely interested in learning more about him, and one rarely gets an opportunity to bend the ear of a man with such connections, history, influence and, presumably, power. One of my counterparts brought up Watergate, but Edmisten clearly had no interest in discussing it. And for one brief period of time I put my web journalist hat on to ask a question that had been burning at the back of my mind since he mentioned he lobbied for Sprint: What do you think about Network Neutrality? 

“What’s that?” he asked.

I paused for a moment to consider that a lobbyist for Sprint just asked me what Network Neutrality was, and before I could gather up a simplified-enough definition one of my counterparts defined it for him, poorly, and incorrectly said it was a ban on Internet regulation. Before Edmisten could process that, I corrected my colleague, and said it was the opposite, that the enforcement of Net Neutrality, as proposed by Congresspersons Ed Markey and Olympia Snowe would strengthen regulation regarding the Internet by preventing large companies like AT&T or Verizon from interfering with or preventing smaller businesses from doing business online and that users would be guaranteed the right to access the Internet content of their choice.

This was a vastly simplified, hurried and incomplete definition offered in correction, but I couldn’t escape the thought a lobbyist for Sprint should already know and that, if he missed it the first time, perhaps my explanation would jog his memory. Edmisten asked no further questions, and without the slightest pause following my explanation, he proudly said, “We’re for it!”

I clarified. “Sprint and Alltel are for Net Neutrality?”

“They’re for it!” he confirmed, and walked back toward the bar.

That was news to me, but I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t right because it seemed to me Verizon and AT&T had been much more vocally against it. But still I doubted that a major telecommunications company would be on the pro-side of this issue. When I looked it up later, my doubt was confirmed and my quaint personal narrative about a chance encounter seemed suddenly newsworthy.

A former politician and apparently highly-paid lobbyist for Sprint told a stranger and a web journalist he knew nothing about Net Neutrality and that his company was in favor of controversial legislation the company actually opposes.

Shortly before my conversation with Rufus, Sprint had a rather public conflict with Cogent involving web traffic management. Prior to that Sprint announced plans to limit heavy bandwidth usage on its Xohm WiMax network; Barry West, head of Sprint’s WiMax unit said video and voice services would have to pay Sprint a premium to guarantee high-quality service; and on October 24, about two weeks prior, Sprint Nextel Corp. CEO Dan Hesse said:

“Probably the thing that scares the industry the most about a Democratic administration is regulating the one real shining star that’s really working really well — and that’s the Internet,” and that Net Neutrality would have “horrendous implications” for the telecommunications industry.

Many, myself included, have complained for years that lobbyists have undue influence in Congress, and that the telecom industry specifically liked to parrot the-sky-is-falling rhetoric in opposition to Net Neutrality.

Rufus Edmisten is a Democrat who boasts of how in his political career he devoted his time to fighting corrupt corporations and helping the downtrodden, and who admits a newfound devotion to making money by lobbying for these same corporations. I suspect he’s not the only lobbyist hanging around Capitol Hill without proper knowledge (or thoughtfulness?) about the policies they push on behalf of their clients.  


Sprint Lobbyist Declares Net Neutrality Support
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  • MB

    This is hilarious. His (ex)wife taught a class of mine in law school, and after we’d had some chances to chat after class, she described Rufus. This story fits that description to a t.

  • http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html Brett Glass

    …to wit, that everyone defines it differently. And, of course, its advocates usually couch it in glowing terms, such as “preserving the openness of the Internet.” This obscures the fact that the legislation that’s being promoted as “network neutrality” legislation would allow P2P pirates and bandwidth hogs to clog the pipes, actually destroying the openness of the Internet.

    The term “Network Neutrality” is worn out. It’s been defined in so many different and contradictory ways that it has no unambiguous meaning. The topic should be addressed in terms of its component issues (the list of which seems to grow daily) rather than as the amorphous, ill defined lump that it has become.

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