Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday threw down the gauntlet in her fight with Uber, accusing the ride-share giant of offering to pay black ministers in Chicago $54 million to help the company defeat her plan to hike taxes on single-passenger rides offered by the service.
Uber quickly denied Lightfoot’s claims. Company spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement, “The mayor is entitled to her own opinion, but not her own facts. Weeks ago, we shared a proposal that would have raised $54 million more for the city — she is confusing this figure. For months, we worked on a proposal that would have raised more money for the city in a more equitable way.”
Lightfoot was at the lectern for a City Hall news conference following Wednesday’s City Council meeting when she made the incendiary claim without offering evidence.
Asked about a different tax structure for ride-share companies that Uber is publicizing as an alternative to her own proposal, the mayor responded: “Is this the one where they’re paying off black ministers by offering them $54 million, or is this a new one?”
The mayor later doubled down on her allegation. “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,” she said.
Lightfoot said Uber’s alleged attempted payoff didn’t work, but she predicted the company would continue trying to find ways to stop her new ride-share fee structure from getting enacted as part of the 2020 city budget.
“As we walked these ministers through the realities of what’s actually at stake here, I think they realized that, frankly, they’ve been hoodwinked,” Lightfoot said of the alleged attempted payoff. “I’m sure we’ll see another Hail Mary until the council votes on Nov. 26, but we must get a handle on congestion and there’s no question whatsoever when you look at the explosion of new cars that are in the downtown area, (and) that’s driven largely if not exclusively by ride-share.”
Asked for proof of her allegations about Uber, Lightfoot said she’s had “a number of ministers who have met with us and said Uber promised us $54 million basically if you back off.”
“We’ll get those names to you,” Lightfoot told reporters. Lightfoot’s office later said in a statement that she met with pastors last Thursday afternoon, but declined to release their names “out of deference to them.”
Uber later released an email exchange from Tuesday and Wednesday between Uber spokesman Josh Gold and Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy director. In the exchange, Gold said the company was disappointed “the mayor chose to attack us and make false claims” and sought to “clear up any confusion.”
“We were disappointed to see the Mayor make a completely unsubstantiated claim while we tried to offer substantial policy proposals, and we hope that your office will correct the record,” Gold said in the email.
Lightfoot is counting on $40 million next year from additional ride-share taxes that would hit hardest on single-passenger rides in the downtown area, but also increases fees on solo trips in outlying neighborhoods while reducing the tax on shared rides outside the Loop.
Uber and Lyft on Wednesday released a plan they said would raise more money than Lightfoot’s and be fairer. It would create three zones — high, low and medium tax areas — with different tax rates. It would impose $1.72 fees for solo trips between transit-rich areas, such as Lakeview and Logan Square. The ride-share companies say this proposal would raise $10 million more in revenue than Lightfoot’s plan — or $21 million if the fee structure also applied to cabs.
One version of the ride-share companies’ plan shared with aldermen over the past week estimates the city would make $14 million more per year in fees, totaling $54 million in revenue, the amount Lightfoot said Uber tried to pay the ministers.
Lightfoot took a dim view of the idea. “We’ve actually looked at the numbers, and I don’t think it holds any water,” she said of the ride-share companies’ fee plan.
Late Wednesday, Lightfoot spokeswoman Anel Ruiz said a proposal Uber has offered would generate $54 million but would not solve the city’s congestion issues and “would only increase their profits.” The mayor’s looking to cut traffic congestion downtown and provide alternatives through incentivized shared rides and “eco-friendly mobility alternatives,” Ruiz said.
“While the Mayor has significant concerns around the ways Uber is engaging the community in pushing information, her priority has always been creating smart, data-driven policy and she encourages a fair debate on the merits,” Ruiz said in the statement.
The Rev. Walter Turner of New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church in the South Shore neighborhood, who had appeared at a news conference at City Hall last week to protest the effect of the proposed ride-share tax on South and West Side neighborhoods, said he was angry about the mayor’s comments and denied that fellow pastors were offered any money.
“I am very offended and hurt to the core. No one has ever offered the pastors anything like this,” Turner said in a Wednesday phone interview. “ … They did not offer us one dime to do this. We’re not working for Uber. We’re not working for Lyft. We’re working for the community.”
The mayor’s accusation about the attempted payoff was the headliner on a day that saw several pieces of ride-share news come out of the City Council meeting.
Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, introduced an ordinance aimed at curbing the number of out-of-state Uber drivers operating in the city by requiring they have an Illinois driver’s license. Waguespack said ride-share was pitched as a boon for local jobs, but that there are currently “thousands” of Illinois ride-share drivers with licenses from other states.
Waguespack’s proposal could generate more pushback from ride-share companies, which already have been in conflict with the city over the mayor’s proposed tax hikes for the industry.
Lightfoot said she’s “looking at” cracking down on out-of-state ride-share drivers “who pay no taxes or any kind of licensing fees in the city of Chicago.”
But she acknowledged trying to curb that kind of interstate travel to work as a driver-for-hire will be tricky. “There’s obviously some constitutionality issues that we have to address, but that is something we’re looking at,” she said.
Meanwhile, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, introduced an ordinance on Wednesday to try to deter people from impersonating ride-share drivers, which he said is a serious problem because criminals lure people into their cars outside bars and clubs, then rob or attack them.
Reilly’s measure would institute a $10,000 fine and up to six months in jail for those caught trying to pass themselves off as drivers for Uber or Lyft.
“Over the last year we’ve seen a rash of incidents that involve fake Uber or Lyft drivers preying upon intoxicated individuals coming out of bars and restaurants,” Reilly said. “Typically it’s a young woman. The phone is out looking for a car. Car pulls up, ‘Hey, I’m your ride, jump in the back.’ Before the person knows it they’re being mugged or, worse, sexually assaulted in an alley. And we’ve had at least a dozen if not a couple dozen incidents over the past year, where this has become a new crime pattern.”
Meanwhile, Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th, and Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, introduced a proposal that would ban aldermen from being paid lobbyists and prohibit elected officials from outside the city from lobbying in Chicago.
“The devil’s in the details,” Lightfoot said. “Obviously there’s a concern in light of recent circumstances about that. I think where we need to start is around disclosure. I think part of the challenge is, people take on lobbying consulting projects, but there’s very little disclosure that’s being done. I think that’s an issue we have to address. I think we’ve got it right here in the city, but I think that’s an issue that’s going to be debated at the state level.”