Politics

Can Bill De Blasio Turn Uber Into The NRA?

At war with the ride-hailing juggernaut, New York’s mayor wants to talk about ideology, not taxis.

A John Paczkowski Special

So will Bill de Blasio pry the Uber app from his constituents’ cold, dead hands?

That is the experiment the New York mayor will start running on Thursday, when the City Council is expected to impose a cap on the growth of what is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the world and sets up a high-stakes confrontation that will absorb his mayoralty and define the politics of Uber and its lesser-known siblings in the flexible, insecure new economy.

As it stands, de Blasio is about to cap the number of drivers of Ubers and other for-hire car companies, a move that will in turn place limits on a service that is popular among its users, and which has no organized opposition. He is walking into a political buzz saw: Uber has endless cash, real panic about getting capped in its biggest market, and every incentive to make an example of the high-profile New York mayor. The campaign is being run by David Plouffe, who once pulled off the rather impressive feat of persuading Democrats to hate the Clintons, and who immediately made it personal.

“The de Blasio folks think this is going to end on Tuesday, but Uber is just going to chip away at his [poll] numbers,” said a top New York Democrat who is among many here doubting the wisdom of the mayor’s fight.

De Blasio’s aides say he didn’t pick the fight, and that Uber was never serious about playing by any rules. But now that he’s got a fight on his hands, he has only one real option: to polarize it.

De Blasio’s strategy for holding his ground is turning Uber into something along the lines of the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobby that provokes its own backlash, and which is as much about ideology as about bits of metal. That’s the terrain on which New York’s progressive mayor is comfortable, and it’s terrain that Uber — despite its founder’s admiration for Ayn Rand — is eager to avoid. The Democratic Party is wrestling with how to respond to what the Center for American Progress calls the “gig economy,” and de Blasio hopes to make this fight about much more than transportation.

De Blasio adviser Phil Walzak told me Friday that the mayor plans to make any fight with Uber about much more than traffic in Manhattan. “Uber’s track record is worth a conversation and an examination,” he said, citing in particular “whether this company has the workplace and consumer protections in place.” He promised an “honest conversation” — which everyone in politics knows means throwing the kitchen sink.

A top de Blasio ally said City Hall also expects the city’s organized left — the labor movement and its outgrowths — will help organize opposition to Uber. They are the closest thing around to natural supporters for the mayor’s side, because it’s hard to imagine de Blasio rallying much of anyone to the yellow cab industry. And that may be a stretch: His own progressive supporters have always scratched their heads at his allegiance to the cab owners, who run what some see as rolling sweatshops.

City Hall doesn’t buy the notion that Uber is growing fast enough for a cap to disrupt the service. (My colleague Johana Bhuiyan has reported in detail about the substance of this argument.) And the mayor’s circle also doesn’t believe that Uber is broadly popular, or represents anything most New Yorkers care about.

“It’s a boutique side issue,” said a top City Hall ally. “There’s a small set of excited tech people who are reading Mashable and might think the mayor isn’t innovative enough.”

Republicans, conveniently, would also like to polarize this fight. “Today, if you’re against Uber, you’re against the future,” the veteran GOP consultant Alex Castellanos told me. Romney’s top aide, Stuart Stevens, said that de Blasio’s opposition to Uber reflects “a failure to appreciate the chaotic, unique nature of Americans.”

De Blasio’s aides sigh in relief every time Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio champions the company. Those are the enemies a New York mayor needs.

This is, indeed, the vision both of New York’s progressive mayor and of Republican leaders: that this new economy becomes a nationally polarizing, deeply symbolic issue. That it becomes, in fact, more or less like guns — an issue on which the right has largely won on the policy, but which both sides have used to rally their respective bases through the years, as common ground evaporates.

“Guns and Uber both represent more than the commodity people are paying for — they represent a deep philosophy behind them that people are devout to,” John Goodwin, a former NRA lobbyist, told me when I floated the analogy. He also thinks de Blasio is going down “a very very dangerous road.”

“The hardest thing for any politician is to take something away from someone — whether it’s health care or guns or Social Security or the ability to on-demand hail a car,” he said.

Uber, understandably, rejects the comparison. They are, unlike guns, popular in urban liberal strongholds. They don’t kill people at a higher rate than yellow cabs.

“People get really upset when you start talking about taking things away — that’s where the similarities begin and end,” said an Uber official.

Uber would prefer this fight to go like the last time de Blasio picked a big ideological fight, his ill-fated attempt to stop the growth of charter schools last year. The mayor soon learned that parents didn’t care much about the ideological case against charters, and that their rich backers could derail his agenda and his popularity. The ride-hailing service, similarly, hopes to rally its supporters, and knows that they face no organized opposition besides the nakedly self-interested people who own a bunch of taxi medallions.

The conflict has “nothing to do with the facts about congestion (or safety or workers’ rights or whatever else you choose to add to the list), and everything to do with past campaign contributions,” New York Uber General Manager Josh Mohrer wrote users over the weekend. (The industry gave more than $350,000 to the mayor’s 2013 campaign, a lot in a city with tight fundraising caps.)

De Blasio’s hope of making his Uber fight about ideology, not taxis, is a long shot in a situation with few good political options. It does, however, guarantee maximum ugliness in city where everyone’s first instinct is to punch below the belt. (Uber has already tried to make this about race, everyone’s first move in any city politics conflict.)

“He’s got nobody on his side really here, unlike the charter battle,” observed the New York Democrat. Meanwhile, “for Uber this is existential — they just have to kick the shit out him forever as an example to other mayors.”

Two Democrats will play key roles in deciding whether Uber becomes a polarizing, partisan issue.

One is Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has crossed progressives repeatedly on economic issues; his favorite hobby is humiliating the mayor, as he did when he decisively ended the charter school fight. The city is, under the law, a creature of the state. Cuomo may well intervene this fall.

The other is Hillary Clinton, who managed to make news by saying exactly nothing about Uber earlier this month. This new economy, she said in a carefully prepared speech, is “unleashing innovation…but also raising hard questions.” Well, yes. An aide, Jake Sullivan, later told reporters that “there’s no beef” in her comment, clarifying he meant that “in the dramatic sense.” The sheer banality of her remark suggests she hasn’t yet worked out how she’s going to play this one, and may well continue to simply have it both ways.

But she will, likely, be the one who decides whether Uber becomes as partisan and polarizing as guns, or as American as the iPhone.

correction

Josh Mohrer is Uber New York’s general manager, and Phil Walzak is an adviser to Mayor de Blasio. An earlier version of this story misstated Mohrer’s first name and Walzak’s title. Also, the City Council is expected to vote on the measure Thursday, not Tuesday.

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Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at ben@buzzfeed.com.
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