Shadowy lobbyists influence rideshare debate
The fight over the future of ridesharing in Chicago is increasingly being waged through shadowy lobbyists. This has some aldermen concerned about how that could influence the current regulatory debate.
At a hearing at City Council’s Joint Committee on Transportation and Finance on Monday, some noted that the lobbying activity on the issue appeared different from the usual at City Hall. They said they were disturbed by the apparent emergence of advocates for ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, who have not identified their interests upfront.
“I’m concerned with the amount of lobbyists on this that we won’t hear from today,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), after noting that he had been handed an unmarked packet of information on his way into the hearing, with no information about its source. “I’d like to see all the lobbyists come up and forward on who we’re dealing with and what’s happening in this controversy here.”
Ridesharing services offer smartphone apps to connect people with cars to people who need rides. Drivers do not have public chauffeur licenses, and they use their personal vehicles. Lately, several cities in the country, including Chicago, have been considering whether, and how, to regulate these services to ensure public safety.
Earlier this month, city officials offered competing proposals on rules for ridesharing. Almost immediately, media outlets (including WBEZ) began receiving phone calls and emails about the issue from a public relations firm that did not immediately identify its ties to the ridesharing industry.
A Chicago-based communications firm called Resolute Consulting has offered to connect reporters with community-based organizations in neighborhoods such as Little Village, Belmont-Cragin and Pilsen, who support ridesharing services. It did not initially disclose that its client is Uber, one of the technology companies behind a ridesharing app.
The consulting firm similarly publicized a press conference led by Alderman Joe Moreno (1st) just minutes before Monday’s committee hearing on ridesharing rules. Moreno was joined by drivers and passengers of ridesharing services to voice support of “reasonable regulations” for the technologies.
“Today is, I think, the difference between the Flintstones and the Jetsons,” said Moreno. “And we’re here today to support the Jetsons.”
Moreno said regulating ridesharing services under taxi rules, as proposed in a resolution by Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and Ed Burke (14th), would stifle innovation in Chicago. Other supporters at the press conference said they feel safe using ridesharing services, and that driving for these services helps them supplement low incomes.
They denied that a company had lobbied them to be at the press conference, with Moreno adding that riders, drivers and the industry are organizing on their own around the issue. But reporters were handed unlabeled, white folders containing reports about Uber, copies of letters written to the city on behalf of Uber, and other information highlighting troubles within the city’s taxi industry. Resolute Consulting’s name is nowhere cited in the packet, though a listed contact’s name and number are associated with the company.
Additionally, all the riders and drivers present at the press conference disclosed, upon being asked, that they were only affiliated with Uber, rather than other ridesharing companies. Afterward, a consultant for Resolute told WBEZ that Uber had put out a request to its members to organize on behalf of limiting city regulations. Alderman Moreno admitted that he had met with an Uber lobbyist, whose name, he said, he could not recall. But he maintained that his advocacy on the issue was motivated by concerns he had heard from constituents who use the service.
“There are lobbyists on both sides of this issue,” Moreno offered at the committee hearing, in response to Fioretti’s suggestion that ridesharing companies have been surreptitious in their lobbying effort. “It’s not just lobbyists that are on the rideshare side,” he added, “There’s lobbyists that we all know that are on the taxi side of this, as well.”
Interests aligned with the taxi industry have also mounted their own public campaign. In recent weeks, public relations firm Edelman has reached out to the media on behalf of client Taxi Magic, which produces an alternative transportation app. Taxi Magic partners with nine metro area cab companies, including Yellow Cab and Checker. Yellow is among several plaintiffs who recently filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago, demanding that the city regulate ridesharing apps as it does their industry.
The coalition of companies behind the lawsuit have also hired former Daley administration lawyer, and City Hall insider, Mara Georges to represent their interests to aldermen in this debate. At Monday’s committee hearing, Georges started off testimony by offering evidence to bolster Aldermen Burke and Beale’s resolution to treat ridesharing companies the same as taxis.
In 2014, city data show the industry has four registered lobbyists at City Hall. Among ridesharing companies, Uber has three and Lyft has one. A single lobbyist represents taxi drivers’ interests.