Was David Plouffe the Key to Uber’s Deal With New York City?

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Sultan Al Qassemi In Conversation With David Plouffe Hosted By Uber & Harvard Business School Club Of The GCC & The Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Of The UAE
David Plouffe talks with Sultan Al Qassemi during an Uber event on April 22, 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Warren Little/2015 Getty Images

Uber scored a major win on Wednesday when Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to put aside his proposal to cap the company’s expansion in New York City, one of its most important markets (Uber vehicles now outnumber yellow cabs). De Blasio is framing the deal as a win for his administration, since Uber has agreed to turn over some data, and to discuss contributing to the MTA budget and possibly adding “worker and consumer protections.” As New York’s Chris Smith notes, “Depending on the details — like how much money might go to public transit, which remains to be negotiated — those are indeed good things.” However, after the blistering attacks de Blasio weathered in the past week, many see the deal as the result of a stunningly effective political campaign by Uber chief adviser and board member David Plouffe, the former Obama strategist who orchestrated his 2008 win.

Uber had been in negotiations with the city for months, and in June the de Blasio administration and City Council said they were considering temporarily capping the growth of for-hire vehicle companies in New York while they figured out how to regulate them. With City Council poised to vote, the dispute came to a head last week when Plouffe assembled a group of black leaders and decried the proposal at a press conference in Harlem. “There’s a lot of discussion in this city by some leaders about progressive politics, economic equality and economic opportunity,” Plouffe said. “What they’re doing is killing over 10,000 jobs.” A de Blasio aide told Capital New York that they felt blindsided because the press conference came just one day after a cordial meeting between Plouffe and the mayor.

The public feud escalated quickly, with Uber hitting city residents with mailings and robocalls and dropping a “stunning” $3.2 million to blanket the airwaves with TV and radio spots that claimed de Blasio was siding with the taxi industry — one of his largest campaign donors — over the minorities and outer-borough voters who helped elect him:

Uber added a DE BLASIO” mode in its app, which showed New Yorkers that under the mayor’s proposal they could face drastically longer waits. Celebrities including Kate Upton and Neil Patrick Harris jabbed the mayor on Twitter (it’s unclear if they had some financial incentive or suddenly developed a passionate interest in New York’s transit policies). Plouffe met with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Reverend Al Sharpton, and several top city officials to make Uber’s case. The final blow came on Wednesday morning, when Cuomo, fresh off his own skirmish with the mayor, sided with the company. “Uber is one of these great inventions,” he said in a radio interview, adding, “It’s offering a great service for people and it’s giving people jobs.”

Uber’s tactics were unusual for a private company clashing with City Hall, but they shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When Uber hired Plouffe 11 months ago, the accompanying press release was completely, even embarrassingly transparent about his mission. Under the heading “Uber the Candidate,” company CEO Travis Kalanick wrote:

But our mission has become a surprisingly controversial topic. Over the years, what I’ve come to realize is that this controversy exists because we are in the middle of a political campaign and it turns out the candidate is Uber. Our opponent – the Big Taxi cartel – has used decades of political contributions and influence to restrict competition, reduce choice for consumers, and put a stranglehold on economic opportunity for its drivers.

As New York’s Annie Lowrey wrote at the time, while Uber’s fight against city councils and taxi associations across the nation had a libertarian bent, hiring “a guy who knows how to use social media to activate liberal urbanites” made perfect sense. In a Daily News op-ed published last weekend, Mayor de Blasio said he was challenging Uber over concerns about drivers’ wages, the surge of vehicles on city streets, overcharging consumers, and accessibility for those with disabilities. “We wouldn’t let ExxonMobil or Wal-Mart or any other corporate giant operate in New York City without basic rules in place to protect the public,” he wrote. “And no number of lobbyists or ad campaigns will change that.”

But in media appearances, Plouffe described Uber, a company valued at nearly $50 billion, as the “underdog.” As demonstrated in his guest spot this week on CBS This Morning, Plouffe expertly flipped de Blasio’s progressive narrative, suggesting that Uber just wants to give New Yorkers a leg up, while the mayor wants to protect his wealthy donors. “The last thing you should be doing, if you’re trying to create jobs in a city, provide more economic opportunity, have more environmentally friendly transportation options – this is the exactly wrong thing to do,” Plouffe said. “At the end of the day, I think the motivation here is the taxi industry has showered the mayor, the City Council president, and others with a lot of money, and this is payback.”

The city’s sudden capitulation reinforces the idea that Plouffe is a political genius (which may be true), but there were other factors at work. Some complained that de Blasio simply gave in too easily. Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, told the New York Times that he “just basically caved,” and the mayor failed to convince Comptroller Scott Stringer and several Democratic outer-borough politicians that Uber needed to be reined in.

Uber had also begun constructing its vast network of lobbyists before Plouffe was hired. While the company will not release exact figures, in December the Washington Post reported that it had hired at least 161 lobbyists across the country. Uber often seeks out former political aides to help lobby local officials. For instance, Cuomo’s former press secretary Matthew Wing and Mayor Bloomberg’s former press secretary Stu Loeser are both employed as Uber spokesmen. They’re part of a strategy that Uber has successfully utilized in cities across the country for some time. The Post explains:

It launches in local markets regardless of existing laws or regulations. It aims to build a large customer base as quickly as possible. When challenged, Uber rallies its users to pressure government officials, while unleashing its well-connected lobbyists to influence lawmakers.

Other start-ups like Lyft and Airbnb have also waged political battles, but Uber’s efforts are particularly aggressive — and successful. While the company has faced setbacks around the world (sometimes sparking protests and criminal complaints), it saw tremendous victories in the U.S. last year. In 2014, 17 American cities and four states passed ordinances recognizing Uber’s right to operate.

Plouffe has yet to comment on the New York deal, but he probably won’t say his political acumen won the fight (publicly, at least). In addition to extolling what he claims are Uber’s economic benefits for drivers and customers, Plouffe argues Uber can rally support because it’s an innovative service that people want in their city. “People always say, everyone should run the campaign that Barack Obama did. Well, you can’t. Because you can’t manufacture it,” Plouffe told the Post. “It’s a really important thing to understand. It either exists or it doesn’t.” He added, “There may be many companies that want to do what Uber does, but if they don’t have it, they won’t be successful.” Uber’s army of lobbyists can keep sending email pleas and creating new ways to mock local politicians in the app, but for the campaign to be successful, riders still have to press the button.