Uber’s method for entering new markets is in line with its well-documented aggressive recruiting tactics: The company sets its sights on a new city and starts operating there, often without seeking approval from regulators.
Then, when a city government threatens to shut down the company’s operations, Uber asks its millions of riders to contact their local politicians and sign petitions to keep the service in business.
It turns out Uber also has a massive group of private lobbyists it’s using to sway regulators.
The Washington Post looked at local lobbyist registration records and found that Uber has hired at least 161 lobbyists in at least 50 US cities and states in the last two years. The number of lobbyists is likely higher, as Uber declined to provide the Post with a specific number of lobbyists.
It’s not clear exactly how much Uber is spending to lobby lawmakers across the country, but the Post says Uber spent nearly half a million dollars in a five-month period in Sacramento to lobby state legislators.
The Post also reports that when Uber sends out alerts to its riders asking them to sign petitions on Uber’s behalf, its customers respond, and they respond fast — “sometimes at a rate of seven electronic signatures per second.” Uber says more than 450,000 of its customers have signed petitions.
In one instance, Uber was told by representatives from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to cease operations in the state, the Post reports. The company rallied riders to contact Commissioner Richard Holcomb and tell him they wanted Uber to stay in Virginia.
It was effective: Uber customers flooded Holcomb’s inbox and he was forced to respond to them. Then Uber sent its lobbyists to meet with Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.), and two days later, the state’s transportation secretary told the DMV not to mess with Uber. Uber lobbyists later created an operating permit to ensure the company could continue to operate in the state, according to the Post.
This isn’t completely shocking. Uber in September announced the hire of David Plouffe, who oversaw Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and turned Obama into a household name. Plouffe now helps oversee Uber’s city-by-city regulatory battles, and is helping Uber continue its streak of dominance domestically and abroad.
“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,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a blog post announcing Plouffe’s hire.
“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.”
Uber has been facing regulatory problems in places like Portland and California in recent weeks. But the company just raised a $1.2 billion round of funding at a $41 billion valuation, so it’s not likely to stop growing any time soon.