Uber and Lyft, two Silicon Valley companies that brought in more than $4 billion in combined revenue last year, have launched a sophisticated and expensive influence campaign to bring their exploitative business model to Western New York. In addition to spending more than $1.7 million on lobbying in just the last six months of 2016, Uber and Lyft have engaged the support of influential local corporate lobbying groups and enlisted several people with close relationships to Governor Andrew Cuomo to push their agenda.
Major lobbying expenditures
In just the last six months of 2016, Uber and Lyft spent more than $1.7 million on lobbying state and local governments in New York. The majority of this spending came from Uber, which spent $1,544,194 split between six lobbying firms, its in-house lobbyists, and lobbying expenses. Lyft spent less at $241,745, split between five lobbying firms.
Uber’s lobbyists include James F Capalino, Cordo & Company, Metropolitan Public Strategies, global law and lobbying firm Dentons, Kasirir Consulting, and Patrick B Jenkins. Lyft hired Buffalo-based E3 Communications, Yoswein New York, Millennial Strategies, Albany Strategic Advisors, and David Yassky.
By far the biggest expense declared to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) as part of the lobbying campaign was Uber’s $1 million television advertising buy by Canal Partners Media, a Washington-based firm whose deep client list includes many prominent Congressional Democrats and liberal organizations. The ad was produced by Siegel Strategies, which has done work for Michael Bloomberg, the League of Conservation Voters, and the hedge fund-backed charter school group Families for Excellent Schools.
Local corporate lobbying groups throw their weight behind Uber & Lyft
The Buffalo Niagara Partnership emerged as a forceful advocate for Uber and Lyft after Lyft joined BNP’s sister group, the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which exerts significant influence over state and local elected officials, added ridesharing to its 2017 advocacy agenda alongside its longtime efforts to roll back labor protections for construction workers and expand the state’s fossil fuel industry.
Visit Buffalo Niagara (formerly the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau), an organization with close ties to BNP, has devoted considerable resources to enabling Uber and Lyft, including printing flyers encouraging people to contact their elected officials about Uber and Lyft. Visit Buffalo Niagara is publicly funded; in 2015 about 75% of its revenue – $3.3 million – came from Erie County taxypayers. In 2017, the Erie County Legislature earmarked an extra $100,000 of public money specifically for Visit Buffalo Niagara to advocate ridesharing on top of its $3.4 million appopriation this year.
Ed Rath III, a county legislator from Amherst who supported the earmark, sits on the Visit Buffalo Niagara board of directors with Buffalo Niagara Partnership directors Jonathan Dandes and Mary Roberts and BNP’s president, Dottie Gallagher-Cohen. Before joining BNP, Gallagher-Cohen was the president of Visit Buffalo Niagara.
Companies with governance roles at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership have also joined in the campaign. Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the Kim and Terry Pegula company whose holdings include the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, backed Uber in December. Russ Brandon, President of the Bills and Sabres, sits on the BNP board and Michael Gilbert, a public relations official with the Sabres, sits on the Amherst Chamber of Commerce board. The day after the Pegulas backed Uber, Paul Vukelic, the CEO of Try-It Distributing, endorsed the campaign. Vukelic is also on the board of Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Buffalo News, the largest daily newspaper in the region and “President’s Circle” member of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, has run a series of positive articles hailing Uber’s “cheap, easy rides,” touting the benefits of driving for the company, decrying the company’s absence as “prehistoric,” and advertising several local Uber promotions.
Uber’s Cuomoland hires
In addition to rallying the regional corporate lobbying network, Uber has made connections to the governor’s office by enlisting several people with close relationships to Andrew Cuomo to advance its efforts. In January 2015, Uber hired Matthew Wing, who was communications director for Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign and a Cuomo staffer since 2011, as a public relations representative. In August 2016, Wing married Cuomo’s current chief of staff Melissa DeRosa.
This January, Charlie King, a New York City-based lobbyist from Mercury Public Affairs, disclosed to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics that he was lobbying for Uber. King is a longtime ally of Cuomo’s, serving as a senior advisor on the governor’s 2014 campaign and running as Cuomo’s would-be lieutenant governor during his first race in 2002.
Another Cuomo running mate, his first lieutenant governor Bob Duffy, left office to lead the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, a group closely allied with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The Rochester Chamber is a member of the “NY Needs Uber Coalition” organized by the company to back its campaign for unregulated ridesharing.
Uber’s efforts to influence the Governor have, so far, been a success. Cuomo made Uber and Lyft a major priority in his 2017 State of the State address, touting the companies in a public speech in Buffalo. He deployed Howard Zemsky, head of the state economic development agency, to bemoan the unavailability of Uber cars outside of New York City in the media. Cuomo also lent the brand power of 43 North, the annual business plan competition to subsidize companies willing to locate in Buffalo, to the Uber campaign, co-sponsoring a $5,000 giveaway promotion with the company.
While Uber and Lyft and the lobbying groups and politicians backing them are trying to portray their public relations campaign as a grassroots movement of people and businesses who want ridesharing in Western New York, it is not in actuality about the grass roots or sharing. It is a sophisticated and cynical effort to manipulate public opinion and manufacture consent via a network of corporate lobbying organizations and the politicians beholden to them. The campaign is the work of billionaires – like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick – spending millions of dollars to convince Western New Yorkers to allow the exploitation of local workers so they can extract money back to the Silicon Valley.
Map: Uber and Upstate NY
The connections described in this report can be seen in the map below: