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Partisan rancor continues over Gigi Sohn’s historic FCC nomination

Committee urged to reject ‘homophobic and unfair attacks’

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden’s nominee for commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, faced a contentious third hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

“I only ask to be treated the way other nominees were treated,” she told U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who questioned Sohn’s ability to act in an objective manner if confirmed given her history of working on behalf of public interest groups.

“The role of a policymaker is different from that of an advocate,” Sohn said, noting “[Former] Chairman [Ajit] Pai worked at Verizon, and I’m sure he was a fervent advocate for Verizon” during that time and prior to his tenure as FCC chair.

The contention that Sohn has been treated differently from other nominees has recently given rise to accusations of homophobia. Last week, the LGBTQ Victory Institute issued a letter with more than 375 signatories urging Congress to confirm Sohn’s nomination.

The letter cited right-wing media coverage that has sought to infer a link between Sohn and child sexual abuse and exploitation by virtue of her membership on the board of an organization that came out against child sex trafficking laws that, the group has argued, are ineffective.

However, remarks by Republicans on the committee Tuesday did not directly address these matters. For their part, Democratic members, beginning with Committee Chair U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), took the opportunity to celebrate that Sohn made history as the first openly gay nominee for FCC commissioner.

Those remarks were echoed later by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to serve in the House as well as in the Senate.

“Millions of people across the country including myself are grateful for you continuing to pave the way for LGBTQ people who want to serve our country,” Baldwin said.

In a comment emailed to the Washington Blade shortly after the hearing on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said, “Ms. Sohn has faced baseless attacks from industry-backed lobbyists and mouthpieces since President Biden nominated her.”

“Congress must reject the homophobic and unfair attacks on Ms. Sohn and confirm her as soon as possible,” Markey said.

During the hearing, Markey noted he has known Sohn for 30 years. “She is one of the single most qualified candidates for any position ever to come before the Commerce committee for confirmation,” he said.

Markey’s comments also spotlighted the important work in which Sohn will be engaged, if and when she is confirmed to serve on the FCC.

“The FCC has important work to do to bridge the digital divide, protect consumers, and ensure that every household in our country has access to a free and open internet upheld by strong net neutrality rules,” the senator told the Blade by email.

The FCC is an independent agency governed by a bipartisan slate of commissioners serving under Democratic Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. Several of the exchanges on Tuesday focused on how American consumers have been negatively impacted by the vacancy that has remained since Sohn was first nominated by Biden in October 2021.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked Sohn to explain why it was important to have a fully constituted FCC for the rollout of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year.

“Myriad ways,” Sohn said. “First, I would love to be able to help the FCC ensure they have the most accurate broadband map … Without that, money spent by [the] Commerce Department won’t go to the right places,” she said. “I could be an enormous help in that regard.”

Spokespeople from the Commerce Department did not immediately return a request from the Blade for comment.

Republicans on the Committee, beginning with Ranking Member U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) focused their comments and questions on allegations that Sohn harbors deeply held prejudice against conservatives.

“There’s a reason we’re on our third nomination hearing,” Cruz said. “She’s shown herself to be a partisan and associated herself repeatedly with the most extreme views on the far-left.”

“She has engaged in extreme vitriol,” Cruz said. “She has deep ties to far-left organizations and has promoted anti-police views.”

Sohn repeatedly batted away these accusations, which were reiterated by other GOP members, by denying that she shares all of the views espoused by public interest groups with which she has associated.

She also denied there was any link between many of the matters discussed by opponents to her nomination and the actual work she would do at the FCC if confirmed. In many cases, Sohn pointed out that the agency does not have any domain over the issues raised by committee members.

Under questioning from Republican members about instances — many of which happened several years ago — in which she retweeted or otherwise seemed to endorse incendiary messages about conservative media figures and politicians, Sohn said “I will admit that some of my tweets have been sharp,” adding, “The country has changed a lot since 2016.”

Cantwell noted that despite her past tweets, Sohn’s nomination has been endorsed by the presidents of news networks OAN and Newsmax, which are billed as more conservative alternatives to Fox News.

Freshman U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) accused Sohn, by virtue of her past comments, of being part of a “weird trend to be very racialized, to criticize racial groups,” pointing to her decision to re-tweet acclaimed actor and comedian Issa Rae’s tweet calling former President Donald Trump a “raggedy white supremacist” who “would rather kill everybody than stop killing black people.”

Vance then turned his attention to comments made by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in the wake of a train derailment earlier this month in East Palestine, Ohio, by rail cars carrying toxic chemicals.

“We had a really bad train crash in Ohio,” Vance said. “We’re doing as much as we can to help constituents. But [Sec.] Buttigieg, instead of commenting on this, focused on [what he called] the ‘terrible scourge of too many white men in the construction industry.’ It was a terrible focus for the Secretary of Transportation.”

Andrés I. Jové Rodríguez contributed to this article.

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Politics

Survey finds support for Biden among LGBTQ adults persists despite misgivings

Data for Progress previewed the results exclusively with the Blade

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Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new survey by Data for Progress found LGBTQ adults overwhelmingly favor President Joe Biden and Democrats over his 2024 rival former President Donald Trump and Republicans, but responses to other questions may signal potential headwinds for Biden’s reelection campaign.

The organization shared the findings of its poll, which included 873 respondents from across the country including an oversample of transgender adults, exclusively with the Washington Blade on Thursday.

Despite the clear margin of support for the president, with only 22 percent of respondents reporting that they have a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Trump, answers were more mixed when it came to assessments of Biden’s performance over the past four years and his party’s record of protecting queer and trans Americans.

Forty-five percent of respondents said the Biden-Harris administration has performed better than they expected, while 47 percent said the administration’s record has been worse than they anticipated. A greater margin of trans adults in the survey — 52 vs. 37 percent — said their expectations were not met.

Seventy precent of all LGBTQ respondents and 81 percent of those who identify as trans said the Democratic Party should be doing more for queer and trans folks, while just 24 percent of all survey participants and 17 percent of trans participants agreed the party is already doing enough.

With respect to the issues respondents care about the most when deciding between the candidates on their ballots, LGBTQ issues were second only to the economy, eclipsing other considerations like abortion and threats to democracy.

These answers may reflect heightened fear and anxiety among LGBTQ adults as a consequence of the dramatic uptick over the past few years in rhetorical, legislative, and violent bias-motivated attacks against the community, especially targeting queer and trans folks.

The survey found that while LGBTQ adults are highly motivated to vote in November, there are signs of ennui. For example, enthusiasm was substantially lower among those aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 39 compared with adults 40 and older. And a plurality of younger LGBTQ respondents said they believe that neither of the country’s two major political parties care about them.

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Politics

Court records raise concerns about right-wing TikTok investor’s influence

Jeff Yass is a Pa. billionaire who has funded anti-LGBTQ causes

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Jeff Yass (Screen capture: Susquehanna International Group/YouTube)

The role played by Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass in the creation of TikTok might be far greater than was previously understood, according to new reporting that raises questions about the extent of the right-wing megadonor’s influence over matters at the intersection of social media, federal regulations, and electoral politics.

In 2012, Yass’s firm, Susquehanna International Group, spent $5 million for 15 percent of the short-form video hosting platform’s Chinese-owned parent, ByteDance. In the years since, as TikTok grew from a nascent startup to a tech giant with 1.5 billion active monthly users and an estimated $225 billion valuation, Yass and his firm pocketed tens of billions of dollars.

Beyond the size of Susquehanna’s ownership stake, little was known about its relationship with ByteDance until documents from a lawsuit filed against the firm by its former contractors were accidentally unsealed last month, leading to new reporting by the New York Times on Thursday that shows Susquehanna was hardly a passive investor.

In 2009 the firm used a proprietary, sophisticated search algorithm to build a home-buying site called 99Fang, tapping software engineer and entrepreneur Zhang Yiming to serve as its CEO. The company folded. And then, per the Times’s review of the court records, in 2012 Susquehanna picked Yiming to be the founder of its new startup ByteDance and repurposed the technology from 99Fang for use in the new venture.

Importantly, the documents do not provide insight into Yass’s personal involvement in the formation of ByteDance. And Susquehanna denies that the company’s search algorithm technologies were carried over from the real estate venture — which, if true, would presumably undermine the basis for the lawsuit brought by the firm’s former contractors who are seeking compensation for the tech used by ByteDance.

Questions about Yass’s influence come at a pivotal political moment

In recent weeks, federal lawmakers have moved forward with a proposal that would force ByteDance to divest TikTok or ban the platform’s use in the U.S. altogether, citing the potential threats to U.S. national security interests stemming from the company’s Chinese ownership.

The bill was passed on March 13 with wide bipartisan margins in the House but faced an uncertain future in the Senate. However, on Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) announced plans to fold the proposal into a measure that includes foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, likely bolstering its chances of passage by both chambers.

Last month, shortly after meeting with Yass at his home in Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump changed his longtime stance and came out against Congress’s effort to break up or ban TikTok. The timing led to speculation about whether the billionaire businessman was behind Trump’s change of heart, perhaps by contributing to the cash-strapped Republican presidential nominee’s electoral campaign or through other means.

Meanwhile, Yass has emerged as the largest donor of the 2024 election cycle. A coalition of public interest and government watchdog groups have called attention to the vast network of right-wing political causes and candidates supported by the billionaire, often via contributions funneled through dark money PACs that are designed to conceal or obscure the identities of their donors.

The Action Center on Race and the Economy, Make the Road, POWER Metro: Faith in Action, Free the Ballot, and Little Sis launched a website called All Eyes on Yass that features research into the various causes he supports, along with insight into the networks connecting the entities funded by his contributions.

Broadly, in Pennsylvania they fall into five categories: Advocacy against reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights via the Pennsylvania Family Institute, lobbying on behalf of oil and gas industry interests by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, anti-union groups supported by Commonwealth Partners, a privately owned registered investment advisory firm/independent broker-dealer, the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, which seeks to privatize public schools and defeat proposed increases to the minimum wage, and the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for lowering taxes on corporations and the rich.

Additionally, All Eyes on Yass reports that the billionaire has given massive contributions to Club for Growth and direct spending to support the electoral campaigns of right-wing Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Josh Hawley (MO); U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), and former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.).

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Congress

Lawmakers champion drug policy reforms at National Cannabis Policy Summit

Congressional leaders pledged their support for decriminalization

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), second from left (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Speaking at the 2024 National Cannabis Policy Summit on Wednesday, congressional leaders pledged their support for proposals to remedy the harms of America’s War on Drugs while protecting cannabis users and cannabis businesses that are operating under a fast-evolving patchwork of local, state, and federal laws.

Overwhelmingly, the lawmakers who attended the conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. or delivered their remarks virtually were optimistic about the chances of passing legislative solutions in the near-term, perhaps even in this Congress.

Participants included U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and was honored at the event with the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award. Republicans included an aide for U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who was featured in an afternoon panel discussion about the cannabis policy landscape on Capitol Hill.

Each of the members have long championed cannabis-related policy reforms, from Merkley’s SAFER Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access financial services (thereby affording them the critically important protections provided by banks) to Lee’s work throughout her career to ameliorate the harms suffered by, particularly, Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana and the consequences of systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The lawmakers agreed America is now at an inflection point. Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to support major drug policy reforms around cannabis, they said. And now that 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use, or both, the congress members stressed that the time is now for action at the federal level.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a formal request to re-categorize marijuana as a Schedule III substance under the rules and regulations of the Controlled Substances Act, which kicked off an ongoing review by the Biden-Harris administration. Since the law’s enactment in 1971, cannabis has been listed as a Schedule I substance and, therefore, has been subject to the most stringent restrictions on and criminal penalties for its cultivation, possession, sale, and distribution.

Merkley acknowledged that re-scheduling would remedy the Nixon administration’s “bizarre” decision to house marijuana under the same scheduling designation as far more harmful and addictive drugs like heroin — and noted that the move would also effectively legalize biomedical research involving cannabis. However, the senator said, while re-scheduling “may be a step in the right direction, it’s not de-scheduling” and therefore would not make real inroads toward redressing the harms wrought by decades of criminalization.  

Likewise, as she accepted her award, Lee specified that she and her colleagues are “working night and day on the legalization, not re-scheduling.” And her comments were echoed by Warren, who proclaimed in a prerecorded video address that “de-scheduling and legalizing cannabis is an issue of justice.”

Congressional Republicans have blocked legislation to legalize marijuana, the Massachusetts senator said, “and that is why the scheduling is so important,” as it might constitute a “tool that we can use to get this done without Republican obstruction.”

Warren, Merkley, and Schumer were among the 12 Senate Democrats who issued a letter in January to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration requesting transparency into its re-scheduling process while also, more importantly, demanding that the agency fully de-schedule cannabis, which would mean the drug is no longer covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in a possible signal of political headwinds against these efforts, their Republican colleagues led by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) responded with a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram “highlighting concerns over HHS’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III-controlled substance.” The GOP signatories, all of whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sought to “underscore the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) duty under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to ensure compliance with the United States’ treaty obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

As Norton noted during her prepared remarks, elected Democrats are not necessarily always on the same page with respect to expanding access to economic opportunity facilitated by cannabis. For instance, though President Joe Biden had promised, during his State of the Union address this year, to direct his “Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana, and [expunge] thousands of convictions for mere possession,” Norton blamed Biden along with House Republicans for provisions in the federal budget this year that prohibit D.C. from using local tax dollars to legalize cannabis sales.

A non-voting delegate who represents the city’s 690,000 residents in the House, Norton called the president’s position “deeply disappointing,” particularly considering his record of supporting “D.C. statehood, which would allow D.C. to enact its own policies without congressional interference” and grant its residents voting representation in both chambers of Congress. She added that the majority of Washingtonians are Black and Brown while all are held responsible for “the obligations of citizenship including paying federal taxes.”

Norton said the city should also have the power to grant clemency for crimes committed in the District, including cannabis-related crimes — power that, currently, can only be exercised by the president.

Some Republican lawmakers have been at the forefront of efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations. For instance, a participant in a mid-afternoon panel pointed to the CURE Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) that would prohibit the federal government from denying security clearances based on applicants’ past or current use of cannabis.

While securing statehood for D.C. and de-scheduling cannabis via legislation or administrative action are perhaps, at least for now, a heavy lift, Merkley pointed to promising new developments concerning his SAFER Banking Act.

The Oregon senator first introduced the measure, then titled the SAFE Banking Act, in 2019, and he said the legislation’s evolution into its current iteration was difficult. “Regulators don’t want to be told what to do,” Merkley said, and negotiations with these officials involved “nitty-gritty arguments over every word.”

Pushback also came from one of Merkley’s Democratic colleagues. In September, Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, voted “no” on the 2023 version of the SAFER Banking Act, writing: “My fear is that if we pass this legislation, if we greenlight this new industry and the fees and the profits to be made off of it without helping those communities” most harmed by the War on Drugs “we will just make the comfortable more comfortable.”

Warnock’s statement followed his pointed remarks expressing concerns with the legislation during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “I am not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively address the issue of restorative justice. This bill does not do that.”

At this point, however, the latest version of the SAFER Banking Act has advanced out of committee and earned the support of Senate leaders including Schumer and much of the Republican conference.

“This is the moment,” he said. “Let’s not let this year pass without getting this bill — the safer banking bill — through the House, through the Senate, and on the president’s desk.”

In her remarks, Lee also discussed the importance of business and industry-wide reforms like those in Merkley’s bill.

“We have to make sure that the cannabis industry is viewed by everyone, especially our federal government, as a legitimate business,” Lee said. “Legitimate, which deserves every single aspect of financial services that any legitimate business deserves and has access to.”

Like Warnock, the congresswoman also highlighted how these financial and business considerations intersect with “equity issues,” as “those who have been most impacted by this horrible War on Drugs” must “become first in line for the businesses and for the jobs and for the economic opportunity the cannabis industry provides.”

Reflecting on her experience introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, which was Congress’s first racial justice cannabis reform bill, Lee remembered how “everyone was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s politically not cool.’” Her legislation sought to end the federal criminalization of marijuana, expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, and reinvest in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs.

The congresswoman said she explained to colleagues how the bill addressed “many, many layers” of often-intersecting problems linked to federal cannabis policy, telling them: “This is a criminal justice issue, a racial justice issue, an issue of equity, a medical issue, a veterans’ issue, and an issue of economic security.”

Two years later, with a 220-204 vote, the House successfully passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, a comprehensive bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and to the Senate by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The measure included Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act.

“This bill is the product of many, many years of advocacy for federal cannabis reform and equity,” she said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage. “Make no mistake: This is a racial justice bill. It’s about the thousands of people of color who sit in jail for marijuana offenses while others profit. It’s about finally repairing the harms of the War on Drugs on communities and families across the country.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go.”

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