"I bet you that cost me my job," West Virginia Senate president, Republican Mitch Carmichael, jokingly told colleagues in April when he voted for a new measure that would expand broadband competition in his state.
Just over a month later it turned out to be true, when he was fired from his job as a sales manager at Frontier Internet, despite having recently been given a significant raise.
Frontier Internet is the state's largest high-speed internet provider and it was implacably opposed to the measure that Carmichael voted in favor of: one that allows up to 20 families or businesses to form a co-op to provide broadband in areas that are currently poorly served. It also lets cities and counties band together to build municipal networks.
In other words: insert competition into a market notorious for its oligopolies, poor customer service and high prices – all combined with slow speeds.
Carmichael told his local newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, that Frontier asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement over his firing. He refused.
On one level, he should have seen it coming: Frontier has a number of lobbyists working the West Virginia Congress, and as Senate president, Carmichael was a major asset to them. Last year, for example, he was a big critic of another bill that would have created a state-owned broadband network, arguing that it would cause other ISPs to stop investing in new networks. The bill died.
This time around, however, Carmichael said: "It was obvious the body wanted that bill, and I wasn't going to stand in the way of it." House Bill 3093 passed 31-1 in the Senate and 96-3 in the House and will become law on July 7.
"The one thing I'm not going to do here as Senate president is advance special interests," Carmichael told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Why the Damascene conversion? It may have something to do with a short stint at Frontier's competitor Citynet back in August last year. Carmichael took a job with Citynet, only to be coaxed back three days later. "They begged me to stay," he recalled. Citynet is no friend of Frontier's, having sued the ISP for damaging competition by using federal stimulus funds to build networks that only Frontier could use.
Even though Citynet had Carmichael for less than a week, it had managed to break the magic mind-hold that large broadband providers somehow manage to achieve (cough, cough, Comcast, cough).
And so when a popular measure arrived offering people the opportunity to introduce real competition in markets that are currently poorly served for internet access, rather than see it as a dangerous threat, the wrongheaded Carmichael thought, "sure, why not?" And so his fate was sealed.
As odd as it may seem to many, State Congressmen – unlike their federal counterparts – are often paid very little or even nothing in salary. In West Virginia, the job comes with a measly $20,000 a year.
That situation has frequently been highlighted as one of the reasons that special interests hold so much sway in state legislatures. As for Carmichael, he says he didn't want to leave Frontier, but now he's on the market for another job.
"I guess I look forward to working for an institute, company or institution that values personal choice in allowing public servants to serve in a role that benefits all of West Virginia," he told West Virginia's MetroNews. "Not just the interests of a particular company."
Frontier said Carmichael left due to a "reduction in force." ®