Uber raised the stakes in an already acrimonious transit war last week, after announcing that it had tapped Obama political strategist David Plouffe to lead its own campaign. But that was only the latest in a spate of big-wheel hirings as Uber consolidates its new role in the state capital. Once a mere transit startup, it's now recast itself as a powerful lobbying arm.
The company is currently gearing up to fight state Assembly Bills 612 and 2293 — the first would impose new permit requirements and background checks for drivers; the second would require UberX drivers to carry $750,000 in liability insurance. Both show legislators doing the bidding of insurance companies and the "big taxi cartel," Uber claims in its campaign email blasts, presenting itself as a scrappy innovator going up against the system.
But a closer investigation reveals that Uber's own political and financial connections far dwarf that of its foes. Last year it hired lobbying firm Gonzalez, Quintana & Hunter to helm its team. That firm in turn subcontracted to lobbyists Mark Weideman, Paula Treat, and John Moffatt, each of whom offers a valuable web of connections, according to political insiders. Weideman is closely tied to the Senate's elected president pro tempore, Kevin de León. Moffatt, a former Schwarzenegger appointee who now represents the firm Nielsen Merksamer, is expected to reel in Republican votes. Treat is best known for representing Native American tribes — most notably the Pechanga — whose members spend tons of money in political contributions. She's widely considered to be a big power broker.
And Uber isn't alone in this battle. Its main competitor Lyft has also amassed a powerful political machine, contracting with lobbying firms KP Public Affairs, Fernandez Government Solutions (which is led by a former aide to Antonio Villaraigosa), Mercury Public Affairs (because partner Fabian Núñez is a longtime de León confidante), and The Crane Group (whose president, Lucie Gikovich, is a former aide to Gov. Jerry Brown).
Uber and Lyft have also widened their sphere of influence by joining two powerful trade associations: TechNet, whose vice president, John Doherty, is a former California Assembly chief of staff, and The Internet Association, whose executive director, Robert Callahan, is a former lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce and TechNet.
With all those partnerships in place, both companies launched a social media blitz, and complemented it with old-school, back-level wheeling and dealing. According to one Capitol insider, every member of the Legislature has already met with Uber, Lyft, and their various operatives. In the meantime, Uber has emailed the telephone numbers of every state senator to its users, with instructions to call and complain. One user tweeted that she's received more emails about saving Uber in California than about saving water.
Others might wonder who the "taxi cartel" really is.