Uber headquarters in San Francisco (Shutterstock)
Josh Gold is no stranger to Albany, where personal relationships are as valuable as currency. Prior to joining Uber Technologies Inc. in September 2015 as the policy director in New York, the Fordham Law School graduate served as director of political and strategic affairs for the New York Hotel Trades Council and was a political and campaign consultant for several high-profile clients, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and his campaign for universal pre-kindergarten, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Unlike some of his previous employers, who have been in New York’s political sphere for years ride-hailing giant Uber was met with resistance from some trial lawyers and the entrenched taxi and livery industry, all of whom have deep-seated relationships with state legislators. After a battle lasting more than two years, ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft Inc. finally were given the green light to operate outside of New York City by the Legislature in April, and started operating on June 29 after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation pushing up the start date from July 9.
Between 2013 and 2016, Uber spent roughly $3.3 million lobbying the state, according to disclosures filed with the state’s lobbying entity. The company spent $1.8 million in the latter half of 2016, just as the Legislature was considering a special legislative session.
The New York Law Journal spoke to Gold roughly a week after ride-hailing apps started to operate in upstate New York and on Long Island. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Was getting Albany to regulate ride-hailing slower than other states?
Gold: On some level, it felt slower because the service wasn’t being provided. In Texas and Florida and New Jersey, Connecticut, legislation passed this year as well. But in all those states we already had service on the ground. In some cases, most cases, legislation was pre-empting local regulations, versus in New York, where there was no service on the ground. So for consumers, constituents and residents of the state, it just felt slower to them, because they didn’t have the opportunities that people in other parts of the country did, where even though there weren’t statewide rules for transportation network companies, there were the local rules for the services provided.
Q: What was the strategy in New York and how did it differ from other states?
Gold: One big piece in New York was that, unlike most states, is the type of insurance transportation companies can buy. The policies Uber purchased were considered group insurance under state law and were not legal within New York. [State law prohibited ride-hailing apps from purchasing group insurance for their drivers. Under the agreement in the state budget, Uber divers would be covered under the company's group ride-sharing insurance and have at least $1.25 million in liability coverage per ride.] So in other places where we believe there was opportunity to operate without direct regulation of transportation network companies, there was not that opportunity in New York. It would have been extremely difficult to operate without group insurance.
There were some local regulatory battles because there was service being provided in Texas and Connecticut before there were statewide regulations. But [their statewide regulations weren't] necessary to operate, given that you could operate under local law, or at least insurance was available on the market. So Uber’s New York strategy for coming up with regulations and lobbying was quite different, because there [were] no existing drivers.
Q: Around the capitol region, businesses took it upon themselves to advocate for ride-hailing, distributing lawn signs and coming up with their own campaigns. Was that part of Uber’s strategy?
Gold: I don’t think we created this feeling or this strategy. We sort of just saw it bubble up and took advantage of it, or at least accelerated it. For lack of a better word, it was FOMO [fear of missing out], and that was felt by restaurants in Troy that wanted to attract people from Albany but couldn’t because of poor transportation options; that was felt by economic development professionals in Buffalo who wanted to attract businesses and keep young people; that was felt by college students who have these options at home. And we tried to amplify that.
Q: Now that ride-hailing apps can operate outside of New York City, what’s next for the company?
Gold: One thing that New York has that other places don’t [there are now 42 or 43 state-level regulations all of which have some differences, he says] is the ability for counties and large cities to ban, or opt out of, having ride-hailing within their borders.
What I’ve encouraged county legislators and city mayors and council members to do, is make sure that we are being good citizens in those communities. That means having good relationships with local transit agencies. That means building partnerships with community leaders to make sure that economic opportunities are created throughout different communities in upstate New York. It means that we’re helping the existing transportation authorities. We have to look out for these opt-out counties. We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure that they don’t want to use that provision.
[Westchester County, for instance had been actively considering opting out of ride-hailing over concerns that there weren't adequate safety checks on drivers. Last week, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announced a voluntary program where Uber and Lyft drivers would subject themselves to fingerprinting; drivers receive a decal if they pass the background checks. Both Uber and Lyft have fought against mandated fingerprint checks, and opted to end rides in Austin, [Texas,] after voters approved the screening process, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., now a Covington & Burling partner, advocated for Uber in urging state and local leaders not to adopt fingerprint requirements, saying checks had a disparate negative impact on some minority groups.]
Q: Uber employed several well-connected lobbyists in Albany to push for ride-hailing over the last couple of years. Will that continue as you lobby municipalities to ensure that they don’t opt out of ride hailing?
Gold: We have some community engagement folks through [lobbying firm] Mercury LLC, a public affairs and lobbying firm. [Mike McKeon, a partner at Mercury, served in former Gov. George Pataki's administration and several Republican campaigns.] We have Craig Johnson [principal in public policy and regulation] from Dentons [who previously worked at Bloomberg Law and McKenna Long & Aldridge]; Cordo & Co., an Albany lobbying and law firm headed by John Cordo; and Patrick Jenkins, of the New York City and Albany lobbying firm of Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates. We are continuing to rely on both some outside folks as well as my internal team. We wanted to make sure we were doing whatever it took to push this bill through this year. That meant having the right people around us and we will continue to evaluate. The team was built strategically.
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