Profile: NAB Chief Has Mean Game of Hardball

Dec 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When the American Medical Association urged the National Collegiate Athletic Association to ban beer ads on college sports programming last year, David Rehr, then president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, fought fire with fire.

In a letter to AMA, Mr. Rehr, who is scheduled to start today in his new post as president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, warned that if the medical association didn’t mind its own business, the beer association might publicize the fact that the nation’s 700,000 physicians cause 120,000 accidental deaths every year.

“It seems that there might be more pressing issues before your association than beer advertising, but if not, please understand the facts before making public statements attacking our industry,” Mr. Rehr said in his letter. By some accounts, the hardball appeared to dampen AMA’s enthusiasm for fighting beer.(An AMA representative insisted that Mr. Rehr’s letter had zero impact on the medical association’s thinking.)

According to industry officials, the letter was classic Rehr (pronounced “rare”), an in-the-face notice that those who dared to mess with the beer industry did so at their own peril.

Resorting to a wilier tactic, Mr. Rehr was credited with using his connections as a Republican insider to persuade right-wing Christian fundamentalist organizations to drop their traditional opposition to alcoholic beverages. “He pointed out that the first miracle in the Bible was Jesus turning water into wine,” said a source close to Mr. Rehr.

The former beer association chief also receives kudos for his role in staving off an effort several years ago to expand the White House drug czar’s anti-drug advertising campaign to include alcohol. Mr. Rehr argued that while there was no evidence of moderate drinking being hazardous to one’s health, there was ample proof that even a small amount of illegal drugs could cause problems.

“That argument won the day with the White House,” said the source close to Mr. Rehr.

These tactics are all the more impressive when one considers that Mr. Rehr is a teetotaler.

“He understands opportunity thinking,” said David Bradford, publisher of All About Beer magazine.

That’s the kind of agile lobbying that NAB’s members hope Mr. Rehr will be able to deliver. The broadcast TV industry sorely needs a legislative miracle or two to ensure its continued viability as it moves into an increasingly uncertain future, particularly as TV stations are forced to make the transition to digital.

High on the industry’s wish list is legislation that would require cable TV operators to carry all of the programming streams multicast on broadcasters’ new digital channels-regulation that broadcasters believe will enable them to staunch the hemorrhaging loss of viewer eyeballs to the multi-channel competition offered by cable, satellite, and now phone companies.

It’s unclear if Mr. Rehr will be able to deliver, in part because many of his victories for the beer industry were of a defensive nature, and the broadcast industry needs a strong offense to win many of the key legislative battles on the horizon.

There’s also concern that Mr. Rehr-who has strong connections to other Republican legislators-may have inadvertently gotten on the bad side of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska-the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee who rides herd over legislation affecting the broadcasting industry.

Unfortunately for Mr. Rehr, it was no secret that Sen. Stevens wanted NAB to hire one of his own former staffers-Mitch Rose, now a lobbyist for The Walt Disney Co.-for NAB’s top executive slot.

Sen. Stevens, who has been known to bear grudges (see separate story), declined to comment last week on whether NAB’s decision to hire Mr. Rehr would affect their relationship.

Complicating Mr. Rehr’s legislative mission is the fact that Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee calls the shots on policy affecting broadcasters and cable, has made it clear he opposes a multicast carriage obligation.

Still, those who know him say Mr. Rehr will put every ounce of his being into achieving the broadcasting industry’s agenda. “David is a very aggressive advocate for his industry,” said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute.

And one more obstacle Mr. Rehr must overcome: He has no background in broadcasting.

But his supporters describe him as a quick study-one who has persuasively demonstrated his credentials as a player in Washington since he first moved to the nation’s capital in 1981 to work for former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn.

Mr. Rehr shifted into lobbying gear in 1986, when he joined the National Federation of Independent Business. He joined the beer association as VP of government affairs in 1992, becoming president in late 1999. Clearly, he enjoys being a lobbyist; he once taught a course the subject at George Washington University.

Among his claims to fame in his early days at the beer association was a slogan intended to soften perception of its members-basically the guys who own fleets of beer trucks and transport the beverage to retail stores: “Family Businesses Distributing America’s Beverage.”

He is also credited with beefing up the beer association’s war chest, SixPAC. Before Mr. Rehr joined the organization, SixPAC distributed less than $500,000 to federal candidates every two years.

In the 2004 election cycle, SixPAC distributed $2.6 million, with 76 percent going to Republican candidates, making it one of the nation’s top five contributors to federal campaigns, according to the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.

Turning SixPAC into a major force in politics was an assignment Rehr attacked with typical gusto. At one point, a fund-raising flyer featured a drawing of a military tank bearing down. “Only by making this investment in the NBWA-PAC can we turn back the Neo-Prohibitionist tide!” it warned.

Mr. Rehr also took pains to ensure SixPAC’s money was well-spent. Under his watch, the beer association required candidates for open congressional seats-as well as challengers of incumbents the association had identified as hopelessly anti-beer-to fill out questionnaires that identified their sympathies on issues important to the beer industry.

As effective as Mr. Rehr was, he didn’t win all the beer industry battles in the more than a decade he spent as its leading advocate.

Despite his best efforts to derail a National Academy of Sciences study on underage drinking in 2003, it was published with recommendations to crack down on beer marketing practices and raise taxes. The study even warned that underage drinking could lead to brain damage and was associated with “violence, suicide, educational failure, and other problem behaviors.”

Whatever else can be said about Mr. Rehr’s prospects at NAB, his hiring signals a transformation in the association’s lobbying style. Mr. Rehr’s immediate predecessor, Eddie Fritts-who led the association for almost a quarter of a century-devoted plenty of evenings and weekends to schmoozing key lawmakers over drinks and cigars, playing host on the golf course, on fishing trips, and at other good-old-boy venues.

Besides not drinking, Mr. Rehr, 46, doesn’t smoke or play golf, and spends much of his free time with his wife, Ashley, and four young children. (Mr. Rehr is a regular churchgoer, attending the same Presbyterian church frequented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.)

Still, those who know him well say that Mr. Rehr has an enviable record for getting face time with key lawmakers, representing the best of a new breed of lobbyist who make themselves invaluable with their reputations for providing reliable information on complicated issues.

“There’s nobody in Washington who doesn’t know David Rehr and respect him for his intellect, integrity and political abilities,” said Mr. Weber, the former congressman who is now a managing partner at the Wa
shington lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock.

Avoiding Sen. Stevens’ Bad Side

Now that David Rehr has officially stepped in as president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, one key issue is how he will be received by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Sen. Stevens’ view is important because he is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees legislation affecting the broadcasting industry.

There’s cause for concern because it was no secret that Sen. Stevens wanted NAB to hire one of his former aides-Mitch Rose, who is now a lobbyist for The Walt Disney Co.-for the association’s top executive slot.

Sen. Stevens, who was declining comment on the issue last week, has also been known to bear a grudge.

Indeed, Sen. Stevens has refused to meet with Dan Glickman, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, since Mr. Glickman was named to MPAA’s top position more than a year ago. Industry sources said Sen. Stevens’ beef with the MPAA chief goes back to the days when Mr. Glickman was secretary of the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration and Sen. Stevens felt Mr. Glickman broke a commitment on a deal. Neither Sen. Stevens nor Mr. Glickman was commenting on the conflict last week.

One argument for leniency for Mr. Rehr is that it’s hard to rationalize blaming him for the fact that NAB’s search committee didn’t hire the senator’s candidate, according to some industry observers. In addition, it’s not as if Mr. Rehr welshed on a deal.