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Uber, Lyft wage intense, behind-the-scenes campaign

ALBANY – When the effort to legalize ride-hailing services upstate died at the end of this year’s legislative session, Uber and Lyft’s political campaign appeared to take a pause.

It was just running more quietly. Until recently.

Over the summer, the two San Francisco-based companies spearheaded an intense, behind-the-scenes effort to prepare for another round in Albany.

They went to church leaders, law enforcement officials, elected officials, chambers of commerce, college students, and owners of breweries and apartment complexes.

Their targets: reluctant members of the Assembly, where the bill was killed in June.

“They were contacting people to contact their legislators. They did a pretty effective job of that,’’ said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and consistent supporter of ride-sharing for upstate.

Uber and Lyft intensified their effort in recent weeks as speculation increased that lawmakers might return for a special session to consider outstanding matters, like a pay raise and perhaps ride-hailing.

Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared in a new, $1 million Uber-funded, holiday-themed TV ad campaign.

“Join Governor Cuomo in bringing Uber to New York,’’ the ad states.

Uber provides much lower fares than taxis, when demand allows

Meanwhile, the most obvious opponent to ride-sharing, a group that has about 30 livery companies as members, countered with its own ad: a low-cost production running only selectively on the internet.

“Can we afford to take that ad and run it on TV? No,’’ said John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association.

The group continues to warn that ride-hailing services do not adequately vet drivers’ backgrounds and that insurance liability is lacking.

But the pro-ride-hailing campaign has been much louder.

Steady outreach

Uber delivered free ice cream to some upstate residents in July and sent a nurse to deliver free flu shots in October.

In November, Uber said it would give $100 in Uber credits to 10 students with their “best Uber ride” when they return home for Thanksgiving to communities where ride-hailing is allowed.

More recently, Buffalo Bills and Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula on Wednesday joined in the campaign, saying there was an “urgent” need to pass the ride-hailing service in order to attract sporting events to Buffalo.

The next day, area brewers gathered at Labatt USA’s headquarters in Buffalo to promote the ride-hailing legalization.

“This holiday season ride-sharing tops upstate New York’s Christmas list,’’ said the advisory, mimicking the narrator of the $1 million ad campaign that Uber has been waging across upstate for the past week or so.

And then on Friday, Uber announced it would partner with 43North, a startup competition Cuomo has funded with taxpayer money out of the Buffalo Billion program. Uber is offering the Buffalo group money, use of its Manhattan office space for gatherings and a to-be-announced effort to help startup entrepreneurs make their pitches to potential investors.

Coordinated campaign

While the ride-hailing campaign might appear grass roots, it is highly coordinated. Uber and Lyft executives spent months gathering a broad range of supporters.

A half-dozen ride-hailing advocates last week participated in a phone conference call with reporters as part of an effort by New Yorkers for Ridesharing, a coalition funded by a trade group whose members include Uber and Lyft.

Among those on the line was an environmentalist from Long Island, a Hudson Valley technology advocate, a Buffalo real estate developer and a University at Buffalo student. Each gave a reason why upstate needs ride-hailing.

“They actually reached out to me,’’ said Nicole Caine, the UB student who participated in the event. She is president of the College Democrats club at the university.

“They contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to talk about my opinion and why it would be a good idea,’’ she said of a person who does work for Lyft.

Caine enthusiastically lent her help to the Lyft effort, saying she has long backed the idea of ride-hailing for upstate because it would benefit college students getting to classes, social outings and to downtown internships.

“It is grass-roots,’’ Caine said of the push for Uber and Lyft.

The ride-hailing consultants, though, made no effort to reach out to the head of UB’s College Republicans club, Reed Tighe. Had he been asked, Tighe said, he would have lent his support, too.

Kale Kaposhilin, an Ulster County entrepreneur, organized the phone briefing.

When contacted and asked whether ride-hailing drivers should undergo fingerprint background checks, as is required in New York City, Kaposhilin said he thought anyone wanting to drive for Uber or Lyft should have “no problem with that.’’

The ride-hailing industry, though, is vehemently against the fingerprinting requirement. It says background checks by Uber and Lyft are more comprehensive than what taxi drivers must complete.

An hour or so later, Kaposhilin emailed a reporter, saying he wanted to be “crystal clear” that he does not support a fingerprinting mandate, which he called a “red herring” in the debate.

Disclosure reports

Both Uber and Lyft declined to discuss the specifics of their publicity and political campaign to legalize ride-sharing upstate. But in state lobbying disclosures, they reported lobbying expenses associated with the legislation that died in Albany last June. The next report will be released in January.

In that first six-month period, Uber reported spending $487,000 with eight different lobbying firms and its own in-house team. Uber also spent another $266,000 on a politically wired consulting firm for mailings and other outreach efforts. During the same period, Lyft reported spending $190,000 in lobbying expenses with five firms.

The opposition, the Upstate Transportation Association representing the cab companies, reported spending $5,000 from January to June.

“We’re the small guy,’’ said Tomassi, its president.

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