Lightfoot Walks Back Comments Accusing Uber of ‘Paying Off' Black Ministers

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday appeared to walk back an earlier claim she made without evidence that Uber had offered to pay off black ministers with $54 million in exchange for their assistance in lobbying against a new ride-share tax proposal.

"My understanding, as I said yesterday, was that they offered up $54 million in - I'll put in air quotes - 'investments,'" Lightfoot said at a news conference.

"What I understand is that Uber, in an effort to try to divide and conquer and use scare-mongering tactics among black communities, propagated a false narrative which is that the proposal that we have to regulate ride-share is going to disproportionately impact in a negative way black and brown communities and that's just utterly false," she said. "And in trying to divide and conquer they offered up potential quote-unquote 'investments.'"

Lightfoot's comments came one day after she accused the ride-share giant of "paying off black ministers," claiming the company offered unspecified ministers a "one-time deal" if they could convince her not to implement a new tax on ride-shares. 

"I've had a number of ministers who've met with us and said, 'Uber promised us $54 million basically if you back off,'" she said Wednesday, without offering further details or evidence supporting her claim.

Lightfoot announced a proposal last month to increase taxes on single rides with ride-share companies, as well as rides that begin or end in Chicago's downtown area. Under the measure, the city's Ground Transportation Tax would increase on all single ride-sharing trips from $0.60 per trip to $1.13 per trip. It would also designate a downtown zone where trips beginning or ending within its borders between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. would be charged an additional $1.75 per single ride and $0.60 per trip for shared rides.

In the weeks since, Uber has emailed its users to decry what it calls the "highest ridesharing tax in the country," encouraging them to tweet at the city and mayor to share their opposition.

The company also hit back at Lightfoot on Wednesday, with an Uber spokeswoman saying 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."

Uber's spokeswoman said it had offered a counter-proposal designating three different zones with varying tax rates, putting less of a burden on riders on the South and West sides of the city.

Decrying media coverage of her comments the day before as "not quite accurate," Lightfoot on Thursday said she was "not going to tolerate" Uber "trying to divide and conquer and pit one group against another."

"One thing that I'm not going to let Uber do is divide me from black ministers or them from me. I know a lot of these ministers, I've worked with them for a number of years," she said. "They are good, honorable people and they want exactly the same thing that we do which is to make sure that black and brown communities are provided with the same kinds of economic investments that every other community in the city has gotten historically."

"But the bottom line here - this isn't about black ministers, this is about Uber and Lyft trying to avoid any kind of regulation and putting out a false narrative that they are somehow not responsible for the unbelievable congestion that we see every single day in the downtown area. They are, those cars are their drivers and they have not been regulated and they’re going to be," Lightfoot added.

Bishop Larry Trotter said in a statement Thursday that he was "confident that the mayor did not intend to infer that all black ministers are being paid by the Uber company."

"In fact, the matter is of importance to the African-American community based on the fact that often times we can't get taxi cabs to come into our neighborhoods," Trotter continued. "Ride-sharing has become a valuable asset to our community. To that end, there should be no stereotype against any clergyman raising this issue."

Trotter added that he knew Lightfoot and that he believed she "would never purposely stereotype the entire black clergy of Chicago" but that he believed she needed to clarify her remarks.

Lightfoot added Thursday that her focus in the new tax proposal was on mitigating congestion - an issue she claimed was not addressed by any proposal Uber had put forth. 

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