Updated Monday, November 5, 2012 at 06:25 AM
PHILADELPHIA — In fall 2009, Comcast planned to launch an Internet service for the poor that was sure to impress federal regulators. But David Cohen, the company’s chief of lobbying, told the staff to wait.
At the time, Comcast was planning a controversial $30 billion bid to take over NBC Universal, and Cohen needed a bargaining chip for government negotiations.
“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a recent interview.
The strategy was quintessential Cohen. The hard-charging 56-year-old veteran of Philadelphia politics and Democratic campaign bundler is Comcast’s chief deal-maker in Washington, D.C.
In Cohen’s decade at the firm, Comcast has ballooned in size through a series of mergers that he has steered through government approvals. Today, with $58 billion in annual revenues and 22 million customers, Philadelphia-based Comcast is the nation’s biggest provider of broadband Internet and cable television and the owner of network television programs, a movie studio and broadcast stations across the country.
A consequence of all that power is a strong cable-television model that keeps many households paying upward of $100 a month for their service bundles, critics of the company say.
Even as Verizon, Apple, Netflix and YouTube have tried to capture the living room, Comcast still dominates.
A critical part of Comcast’s strategy is its secret weapon: Cohen. The father of two wouldn’t turn heads outside the Beltway. He drives a Toyota 4Runner and prefers unfussy dark suits.
But in the rarefied circles of D.C., with his vast network of high-powered contacts, Cohen enjoys rock-star status.
His appeal comes from an ease with government bureaucracy, his friends and even critics say. Cohen is a policy and political wonk with a voracious appetite for white papers and data on arcane telecommunications regulations.
“David loves politics, he loves government and he has incredible situational awareness — a 360-degree view of business,” said Blair Levin, a former senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “He’s just so good at what he does.”
The company’s growth has been mirrored in D.C., where Cohen has multiplied his staff to 20 full-time lobbyists and policy experts. Under him, Comcast spent $8.3 million on lobbying last year, putting it in ninth place for K Street spending, above Verizon, Lockheed Martin and Royal Dutch Shell, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cohen says the company has to spend more because it is a natural target of scrutiny. He also defends the cable-business model, saying it costs billions each year to maintain Comcast’s network and pay for content.
“People say cable is a deregulated industry, but we are like the most regulated of the deregulated,” Cohen said during a typical one-day D.C. blitz of media events and meetings with lobbyists and federal regulators.
Markham Erickson, an attorney for Bloomberg and several Web firms, said companies are often afraid to challenge Comcast, worried it will cut them out of business deals or force them into costly legal battles. Bloomberg has waged a two-year battle with Comcast over the placement of its business news channel in the hinterlands of the TV dial.
“It’s just too intimidating for a startup from Silicon Valley with a few employees with no legal expertise to take on,” Erickson said.
Cohen’s career got a boost when he became the chief of staff to then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. And though his reach extends inside the Beltway, he never made D.C. his home.
At the new, gleaming 58-story Comcast Center skyscraper, Cohen’s office is adjacent to the offices of Chief Executive Brian Roberts and co-founder Ralph Roberts. He described himself as top trusted adviser, to those executives.
With the ability to pull on glitzy NBC resources, Cohen plays host to glamorous events and is a leader in several powerful trade associations.
“David takes an eternity and a half to leave the ballroom,” said David Bradley, head of Atlantic Media and a longtime college friend.
Those connections have added to his powerful circle of friends among top Democratic leaders. Last June, Cohen and his wife, Rhonda, hosted a campaign fundraiser for President Obama at their sprawling Philadelphia home, raising an estimated $1.2 million.
Behind closed doors, the fastidious Cohen commands the room. His ammunition comes from charts, data, studies and talking points.
Each day, he creates a fresh three-ring plastic binder containing dozens of tabs to organize the data of the day. He has been like that since college, friends say.
“At age 21, I had never seen anything like it. Now, age 59, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bradley said. “The sheer scale of effort and mastery were remarkable.”
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg file
David Cohen, Comcast’s chief of lobbying, speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C. This hard-charging veteran of Philadelphia politics has been with the company for 10 years and is its chief deal-maker in D.C.