Uber Recruits A-List Lobbyists to Buy Influence in Illinois

The ride-share app is aiming to edge the traditional taxi industry out of Chicago

Beside recruiting President Barack Obama's former adviser David Plouffe to lead its policy branch, Uber has brought on a small army of lobbyists to tackle political issues on the state level—and here in Illinois, the fast-rising start-up is prepared to spend a lot of cash to defeat the traditional taxicab industry.

Crain's Chicago Business reports that Uber, eyeing Chicago (if not world) domination, has lined up an A-list lobby team including Gov. Pat Quinn's ex-Chief of Staff Jack Lavin and the firm Fletcher O'Brien Kasper & Nottage, which counts attorney Mike Kasper as a partner. Kasper helped Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel score a spot on the 2011 ballot amid residency concerns.

Since May, Fletcher has donated $27,510 to a bipartisan array of influential politicians whose support they hope to win in the ride-share regulation debate, said Crain's, citing research from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Recipients of that money include Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and state Sen. Christine Radogno on the Republican side and state Sen. Kwame Raoul and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the Democratic corner.

Tallied up, the Uber lobby has contributed nearly $60,000 to Springfield and Chicago movers-and-shakers. That's not to mention a similar effort by ride-share rival Lyft, which has retained Nicolay & Dart to funnel a collective $2,500-and-growing toward Radogno, Democratic Chicago alderman Brendan Reilly and other elected officials.

Meanwhile, taxi companies—amassing an all-star lobbyist roster of their own—have formed a fundraising entity, the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, and enlisted the Chicago firms Roosevelt Group and Daley & Georges, which is led by former Mayor Richard M. Daley's brother Michael, to dole out the dough.

All told, the yellow taxi coalition has shelled out $117,271 to the political set—padding Democratic state Senate President John Cullerton's campaign war chest with $50,000—and that number stands to snowball as the group moves to curb the ride-share revolution in the Land of Lincoln.

The politics of Illinois and Uber are getting messier and increasingly entangled, with Emanuel attempting to toe the line between Uber-friendly and cabbie-considerate. His brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, has invested in the popular app and now his ex-White House colleague, Plouffe, is on the payroll.

Emanuel recently passed a bill that bars Uber drivers from picking up passengers at O'Hare, Midway and McCormick Place. (The loophole: City transportation authorities reserve power to open those cab zones to ride-share outfits.)

In late August, Quinn caved to growing outside pressure and vetoed a bill targeting Uber and its ilk with stiff state-wide regulations including mandatory commercial insurance and chaffeur's licenses for drivers.

According to Crain's columnist Greg Hinz, "an override effort is expected after the November election."

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