May 24, 2024

Arsenal of a Lobbyist: Hardball and Cupcakes

IN this covetous town, the delicacies of the Georgetown Cupcake shop stand alone as symbols of wish fulfillment — heaping swirls of luscious confection atop rich, creamy pastry.

Therefore: Operation Cupcake. As the Federal Communications Commission debated final rules last December on how Internet service providers should manage their traffic,  ATT delivered 1,500 of these opulent desserts to the F.C.C.’s headquarters here.

Like many other big corporations, ATT annually blankets power brokers with token holiday gifts, but the cupcake campaign was notable for its military precision. A three-page spreadsheet, stamped “ATT Proprietary (Internal Use Only),” detailed how the desserts were to be deployed to each of the 63 commission offices: four dozen were assigned to the enforcement bureau, 10 dozen to the wireless divisions, 12 cupcakes to each of four commissioners, and 18 to the chairman, and so on.

As it turns out,  ATT had begun its $39 billion courting of T-Mobile about the same time. The resulting ’deal, announced a week ago, would transform the industry if approved. It would narrow the field of major wireless providers to three and vault ATT into the No. 1 spot, ahead of Verizon; consumer advocates say the combination will lead to higher prices.

As interested parties lobby for and against the merger, one person will be pulling at the levers of power more often and with more influence than anyone else, according to both friends and foes: ATT’s chief lobbyist, James W. Cicconi. A master strategist, Mr. Cicconi (pronounced si-CONE-ee) internalizes the art of regulatory and legislative war — and Operation Cupcake is but one of the efforts to come out of his shop.

Tutored by James A. Baker III in the ways of politics in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Mr. Cicconi, 58, plays hardball — literally, as a pitcher in an adult baseball league, flinging fastballs toward batters more than a decade younger.

His roots are in Texas, and he never forgets the lesson of the Alamo: the Texans lost. Other battles have different lessons for him. He once took his staff on an overnight retreat to Gettysburg, Pa., where it toured Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top and absorbed lessons on battlefield tactics.

In 13 years at ATT, Mr. Cicconi has helped guide the company through roughly a dozen mergers, large and small, and he has made his share of enemies in Washington. As a testament to his power, however, few of them will criticize him on the record.

“He’s smart, he’s savvy, he’s strategic,” says Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a media and consumer advocacy group that has often wrestled with him. “I don’t think there’s a lobbyist in town who I disagree with more on the issues, but I have the utmost respect and admiration for the way he does his job. He’s always thinking three steps ahead of the competition.”

MR. CICCONI, senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, is not alone, of course, in spreading ATT’s corporate message. Five other executives rate a similar rank, and four more are group presidents or chief executives, all under ATT’s chairman and C.E.O., Randall L. Stephenson.

Nor is Mr. Cicconi’s lobbying effort a one-man show. He oversees a division that spent $115 million on lobbying over the last six years, putting it among the top five corporate spenders in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying and campaign spending.

ATT employs an army of outside lobbyists, including at least six prominent former members of Congress, including the former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and former Senator John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat.

Over the last two decades, ATT employees and its political action committees have pumped more campaign contributions into federal politics than any other American corporation, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. In the last election cycle, ATT contributions found their way to 390 representatives and 70 senators.

“They are a behemoth,” says Dave Levinthal, editor of, the center’s online lobbying database. “When you have dozens of former federal officials doing your bidding in Washington with a detailed knowledge of how Washington works, it is exponentially easier to grease the skids of government.”

As Congress discusses the merger, Republicans and Democrats will duel over the balance of market forces and regulatory intervention. The White House will strive to balance the president’s campaign promises to get tough on antitrust issues while trying to prove he is not anti-business.

In advocating for the T-Mobile merger, ATT and Mr. Cicconi have their work cut out for them. The Justice Department’s antitrust unit will aim to determine whether the deal will substantially limit consumers’ choices. After the merger, ATT and Verizon would together control nearly 80 percent of the cellular market, with Sprint a distant third.

(Verizon declined to comment on Mr. Cicconi or on ATT’s deal to acquire T-Mobile.)

And the F.C.C., which along with Justice must approve the merger, wants to reapportion the scarce broadcast wavelengths on which wireless broadband operates. The T-mobile deal would result in fewer potential bidders in its airwave auctions.

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