Pickering Weighs Bolting for CTIA

Posted June 24, 2003 at 6:35pm

Rep. Chip Pickering (Miss.), a rising Republican star considered to be a slam dunk for the Senate one day, is considering leaving Congress at the end of the year to take a million-dollar lobbying job before running for higher office.

Pickering, who has five boys between ages 4 and 13, is deciding whether he should resign in the middle of his fourth term to lead the wireless phone industry’s Washington trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

“I have been approached and I am considering it,” he told Roll Call.

The wireless group has not made Pickering a formal offer, but both sides understand that the job is his for the asking, according to sources.

Pickering said he is drawn to the lucrative job, but he is wary of jeopardizing his chances of winning a Senate seat in 2006 or 2008.

Though he said he has not made a final decision, Pickering is acting very much like a Member of Congress on his way out the door.

He discussed the issue with his family over the weekend and spent Monday evening and Tuesday talking with his colleagues, political strategists and former aides. A final decision is expected within days.

Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic campaign strategists have quietly begun laying the groundwork for a special election to replace Pickering in the House.

Pickering’s departure could have far-reaching political implications in both Washington and Mississippi.

It could prod Mississippi’s Democratic-run Legislature to redraw the lines of Pickering’s district to make it more favorable to Democrats. It could create an opening for Democrats to swipe a now-safely held Republican seat. And it could diminish Pickering’s influence in the increasingly partisan Senate battle over the nomination of his father, District Judge Charles Pickering, to a federal appeals court seat.

Those who know Pickering well say his decision is being driven by two factors: money and politics.

Pickering dearly wants to replace Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — his mentor in politics — when the former Majority Leader leaves the Senate when his term expires in 2006 or beyond. But he also comes from modest roots and would like to make enough money to pay for his sons’ educations before returning to government.

“At some point he is going to have to make some money and take care of his kids,” said a Republican close to Pickering. “He can go do this for a couple of years, put some money in the bank, and then go back. The thought is, this might actually be decent timing.”

Unlike many of his colleagues, Pickering has little money in the bank and roughly $100,000 invested in the stock market, according to his most recent financial disclosure form. His Congressional salary is about $150,000 per year.

The current head of the wireless industry, Thomas Wheeler, earned about $1 million last year in salary and other compensation, making him one of the best-paid lobbyists in town.

Wheeler plans to step down from his post at the end of the year.

According to those close to the situation, executive search firm Korn/Ferry International called Pickering last month to find out if he was interested in the position.

Two weeks ago, Pickering met with Wheeler and other members of CTIA’s board to discuss the job.

Now he must decide if leaving the House will damage his chances for the Senate.

“He has really been searching his soul,” said one Republican of Pickering, who turns 40 this summer. “Does he want to do this? Is this the right thing? Does this take him out of the Senate?”

One factor guiding Pickering may be the experiences of another well-known Republican lobbyist now seeking higher office in Mississippi: Haley Barbour.

Barbour is expected to be elected governor of Mississippi this fall after working for years as a lobbyist with Barbour, Griffith & Rogers.

Pickering has taken a strong interest in telecommunications and wireless issues during his seven years in the House.

He is a co-chairman of the Congressional Wireless Caucus and sits on the panels with jurisdiction over the industry, the Energy and Commerce Committee and its telecommunications subcommittee.

He helped enact a bill to simplify state and local taxation of wireless calls and has worked on legislation to free up enough wireless spectrum for next-generation networks.

Before he being elected to the House in 1996, Pickering was a top floor aide to Lott, where he helped the then-Majority Leader steer the Telecommunications Act through the Senate and a thorny House-Senate conference committee.

In many ways, Pickering has followed in Lott’s footsteps. Both were born and raised in nearby blue-collar Mississippi towns, and Pickering now represents a district just north of the one that elected Lott to his first House term in 1972.

After being ejected from the Senate leadership at the end of the previous term, many thought that Lott would retire later this year if Barbour won Mississippi’s gubernatorial election. That would allow Barbour to tap Pickering to serve out Lott’s term, according to the working theory.

But even if Lott doesn’t leave early, Pickering would stand a good chance of winning a statewide race in his own right when a Senate seat opens up.

Pickering spent $2 million last fall on a statewide television campaign designed to boost his name identification and defeat fellow Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.) by a whopping 29 points.

On top of that, Republicans say, the Senate battle over Pickering’s father did nothing to hurt the Pickering name back home.

But Rep. Pickering’s decision to leave Congress could make it more difficult for the Senate to confirm his father.

Pickering views his father’s confirmation fight as a campaign for family redemption, and he has met with black political leaders in Mississippi to explain his father’s record and with Democratic Senators in Washington to try to stop another filibuster.

Though Pickering would not take the CTIA job until Wheeler leaves at the end of the year, his influence over Senators could be diminished if he is viewed as a corporate lobbyist.

The partisan Senate fight over the elder Pickering’s nomination also could cause some friction for the trade association if the younger Pickering takes the job. Many of the industry’s priorities share bipartisan support and the increasingly political nomination fight portrays both Pickerings as partisans.

One of the industry’s top Congressional priorities this year is an emergency wireless 911 bill being championed by many of the same Democrats who have led the charge against Pickering’s father, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the bill’s co-

author.

Another factor that could be weighing on Pickering’s decision are the experiences he dealt with in the last 18 months on Capitol Hill, according to Lott.

In March 2002, his father was rejected by a then-Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee for his nomination to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a racially charged battle.

In December, Lott was deposed as Republican leader in another racially tinged fight.

Pickering saw the “reputations smeared” of two of the most important people in his life, Lott said, which could leave him wondering why he shouldn’t leave politics to make money.

“It cannot help but be in the back of his mind,” Lott said.

Lott spoke of Pickering’s move as though it would be a permanent departure from politics, not a temporary move to make money before running for the Senate.

Said a wistful Lott: “When you lose young men like that in politics, you don’t recover very easily.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.