Point Austin: How Much Money Is Too Much?
As Uber and Lyft's millions flood, Austin voters may have had enough of Prop 1
When I last wrote about the Proposition 1 campaign ("Money Doesn't Talk, It Swears," April 30), Uber and Lyft (via their political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin) had filed finance reports with the City Clerk reflecting $7.1 million in spending to promote Prop 1. Even as reporters began to analyze that filing, RWA reported another $1 million about to be spent, which presumably includes more than $300,000 in advertising buys in supplemental reports filed Monday and Tuesday. Since election day is still a few days away, a reasonable guess is that the two companies may have spent $10 million by May 7. And in the blur of flying dollars, it's impossible to know if the companies are accounting for all the ancillary spending (tweeting, texting, trolling, discount and free rides, driver engagement) that have become part of their overwhelming campaign.
Against this unprecedented onslaught, it's hard to believe that the $100,000 or so raised by the local opposition groups (Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice and Austin Unites) can withstand RWA's hurricane campaign of mailers, phone calls, and especially online and TV advertising. Our City's single TV ad, noting that RWA has been lying through its gold-capped teeth in virtually every public statement, is irrefutable – but just how many times can you hear the Big Lies before you start to believe them, even a little bit? A couple of weeks ago, Uber or Lyft recruited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, hoping to threaten the city of Austin's candidacy for the Smart City Challenge grant – "Nice little application you have here," the letter seemed to suggest. "It would be a shame if anything happened to it." (See "More Strong-Arming From Uber and Lyft," April 24.)
That underhanded maneuver appears to have been the straw that finally provoked Mayor Steve Adler to reject Uber and Lyft's "bullying" of Austin voters.
Signs of Rebellion
Adler's opposition (still bearing the hope, God bless him, that he can broker some compromise to keep the ride-hailing services in town) was the icing on a cake of opponents that include most of the local progressive voting groups, ranging from the Travis County Democratic Party through unions, Democratic clubs, a couple dozen current or former public officials, to even the seldom-endorsing League of Women Voters. RWA counters with the local Chamber of Commerce, TechNet (a petition funder), the Real Estate Council of Austin, and (looking lonelier by the day) former Mayor Lee Leffingwell. If Austin's municipal voting patterns hold (and despite strong early turnout, at roughly 10% it's still nothing to brag about), there's some reason to believe that $10 million isn't enough to buy an Austin election.
Or maybe it's too much. There's been plenty of backlash on social media to the sheer volume and relentlessness of the RWA campaign, with many voters suggesting they were on the fence until they were buried in misleading campaign mailers and malevolent voiceovers. Longtime political consultant (and strong Prop 1 opponent) Mark Littlefield told the Austin Monitor that he expects Prop 1 will lose badly, and the reason is "$8.2 million" – that in fact, Uber and Lyft's overwhelming money barrage has hurt them with voters who consider such corporate political spending obscene. "I think that maybe if they'd spent $1 million," Littlefield added, "they might have won."
End the Blackmail
Whatever the outcome, Uber and Lyft's money siege has likely altered the face of local politics beyond recognition. Should they lose, it's not likely to stop the next monied bullyboys from believing they know better how to spend Austin voters into the ground. Indeed, it's not even likely to stop Uber and Lyft. The next state legislative session is looming, and it's certain to have occurred to somebody in San Francisco headquarters (or the companies' political consultants in D.C. and elsewhere) that state lawmakers are always ready to sacrifice "local control" to major business priorities, and that in general, state reps are cheaper to buy (OK, "lobby") than are "grassroots" petition drives and elections.
I hate to end on that foreboding note, but political battles are seldom settled in one election cycle, nor even in a year or two of negotiation and ordinance-making. This latest donnybrook began with Uber and Lyft simply ignoring Austin laws, followed by a City Council attempt to find a way to get them inside the tent, pissing out. That effort failed – not for lack of official trying, but because the companies have decided (here and elsewhere) that their "business model" and their libertarian ideologies dictate that elected governments are irrelevant, and that their financial power enables them to impose their own self-regulation on local communities.
If nothing else, Austin voters have a golden opportunity this week to thumb their noses at this quasi-criminal racket, to tell Uber and Lyft that their lies and threats are worse than worthless, and to stick it all where the sun don't shine. I've never had an easier vote than against Prop 1.