Uber makes nice with City Hall
Three months after Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the ride-hailing giant of offering black ministers a $54 million “payoff” to kill the $40 million fee, Uber has agreed to contribute $100,000 to reach “hard to count” portions of Chicago’s population and bolster participation in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Uber were at each other’s throats during the battle over Chicago’s new congestion fee, but the two combatants have apparently reached a cease fire.
Three months after Lightfoot accused the ride-hailing giant of offering black ministers a $54 million “payoff” to kill the $40 million fee, Uber has agreed to contribute $100,000 to help bolster participation in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Lightfoot has been urging business leaders to match the $500,000 the city has earmarked to bankroll community organizations charged with reaching the 48% of Chicago’s population identified as hard to count.
“With your help, we can double our impact, awarding $1 million worth of grants to organizations on the ground in Chicago to support this effort,” Lightfoot told business leaders recently at the Harold Washington Library.
Now, Uber is answering the call, putting aside any lingering animosity.
The ride-hailing giant, whose investors include former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother, will contribute $100,000 “to be distributed to community organizations assisting in educating hard-to-count residents and ensuring that they understand the importance of their participation,” according to the mayor’s office.
Roughly 48% of Chicago’s population of 2.7 million is categorized by the U.S. Census Bureau as “hard to count.”
They include immigrants; refugees; renters; the homeless; people with disabilities; non-English speakers; children under five; senior citizens; and college students.
Uber spokesperson Kelley Quinn, a former Emanuel press secretary who worked briefly for Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign, refused to comment on the company’s decision to make nice with City Hall.
It’s a marked contrast to the bitter exchange between Lightfoot and Uber last fall.
That’s when Lightfoot dropped a political bombshell when asked about a counter-proposal that, Uber claimed, would have raised $21 million more than Lightfoot’s congestion fee, in part, because it would have applied to taxis as well as ride-hailing.
“Is this the one where they’re paying off black ministers by $54 million? That one? Or is this a new one?” the mayor said on that day.
“They offered up black ministers $54 million —a one-time deal— if they would convince the mayor to do away with any other kind of regulation. And as we walked these ministers through the realities of what’s actually at stake here, I think they realized that, frankly, they’d been hoodwinked.”
Pressed for proof, Lightfoot said, “I’ve had a number of ministers who’ve met with us and said, ‘Uber promised us $54 million if you [convince the mayor to] back off.’ ... We’ll get those names to you.”
The mayor’s office refused to release the ministers’ names “out of deference to them.”
The following day, Lightfoot substituted the word “payoff” for “investments” in, what appeared to be a calculated attempt to extract herself from a political controversy of her own making.
Not only did the remark risk offending black ministers who are a powerful political force.
The payoff charge had the potential to impact the stock of a publicly-owned company. If the former federal prosecutor was truly accusing Uber of attempted bribery and had evidence of such a crime, she had an obligation to report that charge to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Uber’s director of public policy Josh Gold branded the payoff charge “categorically false” and accused the mayor of “confusing the $54 million in revenue that revenue that one of our proposals would have raised for her own budget.”
The ride-sharing fee was the most controversial element of Lightfoot’s first budget — and not simply because of the back-and-forth between the mayor and Uber.
It more than tripled the tax on passengers riding solo to and from downtown and slapped a 74% increase on ride-hailing trips in Chicago neighborhoods that go nowhere near downtown.
Uber has filed a lawsuit challenging a similar congestion fee in Skokie. Depending on the outcome of that litigation, a similar fight is possible in Chicago.