Battlin’ Bill de Blasio’s Uber Fight

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Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, speaks during a Roosevelt Institute event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who popularized the term "the 1 percent" to spotlight increasing income inequality, headlined the first stop of a four-day U.S. tour by de Blasio. Stiglitz presented the study "Rewriting the Rules for the American Economy: an Agenda for Shared Prosperity" at the event. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, speaks during a Roosevelt Institute event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

City Council votes are typically sleepy affairs. But tomorrow’s expected debate on a bill to restrict the growth of Uber has already generated more heat than any impending council action since 2008, when Michael Bloomberg muscled through a revision of term limits. 

Back then there was some doubt about the outcome of the council vote. The Uber cap, and a companion bill to launch a traffic study, should pass fairly easily. The real drama this time comes from the political ripples — which could turn out to be just as far-reaching as they were seven years ago, when a Brooklyn councilman named Bill de Blasio used his opposition to the term-limits extension to build a citywide profile.

De Blasio is, of course, now the mayor himself, and he has at least one strong policy argument in his fight against Uber: Any industry that wants to add 10,000 commercial vehicles to city streets is indeed worthy of thorough regulation. He also has at least one serious political weakness: The yellow taxi industry, whose existence is threatened by Uber, has been one of de Blasio’s most prolific campaign donors.

But while those and other issues are, um, driving the current debate, one element has gone under-appreciated in the whirlwind of bad faith, racial posturing, and supposedly hurt feelings: This tangle with Uber is another step in the continuing emergence of a sharper-elbowed de Blasio.

The mayor’s newly combative tone has largely been attributed to his hiring, in late May, of a feisty press secretary, Karen Hinton. But while Hinton has certainly helped inject energy at City Hall, de Blasio’s newfound aggressiveness began to surface in April, when he declared himself a holdout from the Hillary Clinton presidential bandwagon. Then, at the end of June, the mayor ripped Governor Andrew Cuomo for failing to deliver on the city’s agenda in Albany, accusing Cuomo of waging vendettas against his critics.

Now comes Uber. The car-service company bears plenty of responsibility for stoking this confrontation — staging a Harlem press conference that basically claimed the mayor was discriminating against minorities by daring to restrain Uber, and unleashing millions in TV and web ads accusing de Blasio of killing jobs.

But the way in which de Blasio has returned fire is instructive. In a Daily News op-ed the mayor jabbed Uber as a “corporate giant,” similar to baddies Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil, trying to buy its way out of reasonable rules . At the Vatican on Tuesday, de Blasio hit the same populist notes: “As a multi-billion dollar corporation, Uber thinks it can dictate to government … The people of our cities don’t like the notion of those who are particularly wealthy and powerful dictating the terms to a government elected by the people. So I think that is not a wise course and ultimately the people will reject it.”

In his first year as mayor, de Blasio pursued his causes congenially, and the strategy mostly paid off, helping him win state funding for pre-k and ride out a nasty spat with the police unions. Now the mayor is settling into the mid-term slog of governance, where things like improving the public schools, reducing homelessness, and constructing affordable housing are slow going. 

The Uber battle allows de Blasio to show strength by standing up to what he’s casting as a deep-pocketed darling of the elites. “It would be a tremendous failure of leadership for any mayor to simply lay down because a big company with lots of money, and threats of spending that money, wants you to do something,” says Phil Walzak, a senior adviser to the mayor. “You can’t let any company come in and bully the policymakers and elected officials of a city or a state.”

The mayor is asking some legitimate questions about whether Uber’s rapid growth is serving the city as well as possible. By portraying the company as second-wave Bloombergism, though, de Blasio also reinforces his political brand as the true progressive champion of “the people”  — perhaps with one eye toward his reelection campaign in 2017.

Uber says it has generated more than 20,000 emails to City Hall in five days from its riders, protesting the proposed cap; City Hall says it’s more like 17,000. Those kinds of numbers must be of some concern to a man who wants a second term. Though not a third term, of course.