This week has been the going away for Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, often called “the Conscience of the Commission.” Not some soppy, Jiminy Cricket-style conscience sitting helplessly on your shoulder pleading and wheedling to try to get you to be good. Clyburn has been a conscience that kicks ass and takes names. The fact that, despite these hyper-partisan times, so many of her Republican colleagues and former colleagues were positively clamoring at her official FCC send off to praise her with genuine warmth for her empathy, graciousness and passion proves (as I once said about Jim Cicconi, who came out of retirement to add his own praise at Clyburn’s official farewell), you can be extremely effective without being a total jerk.
Many people understand the duty of public service. But for Mignon Clyburn, it is a calling.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan. If you wonder why, read her going away speech from the appreciation/going away party the public interest community held for her last Wednesday — although simply reading the words cannot convey the stirring passion and eloquence with which she read it. Too many people who care deeply about social justice dismiss communications law as a wonky specialty. Those with the passion to follow the instruction of the prophet Isaiah to “learn to do good, seek justice, comfort the oppressed, demand justice for the orphan and fight for the widow” often chose to go into fields where this struggle is more obvious such as civil rights or immigration law. But as Clyburn made clear through both words and actions, we desperately need this same passion in communications law. “The communications sector does not just intersect with every other critical sector of our economy, society, and democracy; it is inextricably intertwined. Healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, commerce, governance, civic engagement, labor, housing, transportation, public safety—all rely on this modern communications infrastructure. Any weaknesses or shortcomings, systemic or isolated, will have ripple effects that can be difficult to discern, but are unmistakable in their impact.”
Some reflections on Clyburn’s tenure below . . .
The Book of Proverbs ends with the famous poem in praise of the “Woman of Valor”. “A woman of valor who can find, for her worth if above rubies.” Those who do not speak Hebrew will miss the fact that the word translated as “valor,” “chayil,” is the same root word as used for “warrior” or “soldier.” In her nearly nine years at the Commission, Mignon Clyburn has been a warrior for the cause of economic and social justice in the truest sense. Disciplined, strategic, knowing when to take a stand and knowing when to accept a partial victory. Willing to negotiate, but refusing to compromise fundamental principles.
Clyburn made history as the first woman to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Despite serving as “interim” between Chairman Julius Genachowski and Chairman Tom Wheeler, Clyburn was no placeholder shying away from critical issues. A non-comprehensive list of her accomplishments as the first Chairwoman of the FCC includes: Disability access, wonky spectrum issues critical to competition, privacy, E-rate, and public safety. Clyburn was the first Chairwoman to dig in on the practical aspects of the phase out of the legacy phone system, addressing rural call completion problems, and preventing Verizon from ending wireline phone service on Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy. She went after media consolidation, and cracked down on Lifeline fraud.
But of course, what everyone most remembers Clyburn for is her signature issue, taking on the outrageous rates charged to prison inmates. After more than 10 years of petitioners asking the FCC to enforce the law and bring justice to the families of those incarcerated and end “unjust and unreasonable rates and practices” Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn stood up to the powerful law enforcement lobby to protect the weakest and most vulnerable people in America. Why? Because, in addition to it being the actual Goddamn job of the FCC, it was the moral thing to do.
And those were only her accomplishments in her 6 month tenure as Chairwoman!
Time and again, throughout her nearly 9 years of service as Chair and Commissioner, Mignon Clyburn stood by this bedrock principle: “I believe that depriving anyone of a critical service, whether done purposefully or as the harmful byproduct of a business decision, is wrong and hurts all of us. It often robs people of their health, education, and livelihood, and sometimes much more.” There are millions of people in the United States today who are materially better off because of her non-stop efforts to champion their cause, even though they never knew it and likely never will. Even where the courts or the change in administration have reversed some of the victories that she achieved, those achievements still provide the foundation for those who understand not merely the legal but the moral dimension of communications law to continue to fight for social justice and against economic inequality and institutional racism.
She has fought for you so many times, and you never even knew she was there. She never stops. She never asks to be thanked. But I have seen her, and she is an inspiration to all of us for whom “the public interest” and “public service” are not merely a duty, but a calling.
O.K. I borrowed that last from Doctor Who. Did I mention I’m a fan?
Mignon Clyburn has not given any indication of her future plans. Some speculate she may eventually run to replace her father, Rep. James Clyburn in Congress. I certainly hope she runs for some public office worthy of her talents — we need smart, compassionate, dedicated people in politics. But even if she decided to retire tomorrow (ha!), Mignon Clyburn would already have secured a legacy of leadership and courage that would make any mother or father proud. As former Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy observed at Clyburn’s official goodbye: “Around here, we know James Clyburn as Mignon’s father.”
I began with reference to the Book of Proverbs, and so shall I end. The last line of the “Woman of Valor,” and the last line of the Book of Proverbs, states: “Give her credit for the fruit of her labors, and let her deeds be praised in the city gates!” I can think of no better tribute to Chairwoman Clyburn than the list of all her labors and accomplishments.
Stay tuned . . .