At the same time gig companies were ramping up efforts to pass Proposition 22, a ballot measure exempting them from classifying drivers as employees in California, Lyft was already gearing up for another fight in Illinois.
On June 23, Lyft filed paperwork with Illinois’ State Board of Elections to create a political action committee named Illinoisans for Independent Work (IIW). Documents name Jordan Markwith, Lyft’s Head of External Affairs as committee chair and Darrin Lim—partner and co-founder of Politcom Law—as treasurer. Politcom is a self-described “bipartisan law practice” that provides advice on “lobbying regulations, campaign finance laws, “pay-to-play” restrictions, governmental gifting and ethics rules.”
The group offers no substantive policy information on its website or Facebook page beyond supporting Illinoisans’ “right to independence.” A video ad posted to Twitter in late October features footage of gig workers intercut with other professions and promotes “independent work” while parroting gig industry talking points such as supposed flexibility. “Spend more time with your family,” the tweet’s caption reads. “Independent work means having the freedom to decide where, when, and how much you want to work.”
“Lyft is ready to work with Illinois policymakers and labor leaders to keep drivers earning during this pandemic,” a Lyft spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Drivers want both independence and benefits, like the policy that was supported in a landslide by California voters, and we’ll continue to fight for them.”
After Prop 22 passed earlier this month, companies began expressing intent to replicate its success elsewhere. Uber even has a newly branded word for its new fight to warp labor laws around the nation: IC+, or independent contractors plus. Anthony Foxx, Lyft’s chief lobbyist and former Obama transportation secretary, told the Washington Post in an interview at the time that “[w]e absolutely want to engage with our friends in labor, and to figure out whether there’s a larger, even more impactful way to move forward.”
Illinois has flirted with reclassifying gig workers as employees for some time, but have yet to take decisive action or introduce any legislation on the matter. The city has attempted to regulate ride-hail companies in the past to manage traffic and congestion, but Uber is also currently facing a misclassification lawsuit where a driver alleges the company misclassified him as an independent contractor in violation of Illinois employment law.
Illinoisans for Independent Work has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars cultivating ties to Democratic Party state legislators. From July to September 30, the group spent well over $400,000 on consulting, website design, digital advertising, and telephone polling. The group spent another $233,486 on political mailers. By October, the group had directly contributed around $136,999 to a slate of dozens of Democratic state legislators.
And Illinois is seemingly just one part of a larger effort, with several similar PACs being set up in New York and specific consulting firms being retained to foster ties with Democrats.
Markwith and Lim are also chair and treasurer for another Lyft-backed political action committee in New York named New Yorkers for Independent Work (NYIW) that was created in 2020 and the company. State campaign disclosure documents reveal the PAC has retained one firm for its political operations: Mercury Public Affairs, which describes itself as a “high-stakes public strategy firm.”
As Rob Galbraith reports for the Public Accountability Initiative, Mercury is deeply connected to New York governor Andrew Cuomo. The firm’s New York co-chair, Charlie King, worked with Cuomo when he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was his running mate in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and an advisor for his 2014 reelection campaign. Another partner at Mercury, Morris Reid, was a senior Cuomo aide at HUD. Yet another Mercury partner, Michael McKeon, served as the executive director of Republicans for Andrew Cuomo Group.
As of September 30, NYIW had spent $646,802 on direct mailers, another $326,000 on digital ads, and $44,500 on polling aimed at Democratic incumbents fighting primary challengers and beating Republicans in the general.
Uber also created its own PAC in New York in 2020, New Yorkers for Flexible Work (NYFW). Its treasurer, Joshua Gold, is the director of public policy for Uber. During the primary season, NYFW spent $105,000 on digital ads (including Spotify ads) in a bid to defend various Democratic incumbents from challengers in Assembly Districts 34, 35, 108, 38, 57, 36, and 35.
Running Uber’s PAC is Red Horse Strategies, another major Democratic Party consultant. Its three co-founders also served in the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee as executive director (Doug Forand), campaign director (Marc Lapiduss) and feld director (Nate Smith). Smith is another Cuomo associate and also has ties to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he ran the Mayor’s now inactive lobbying group, Campaign for One New York.
Similar to NYIW, Uber’s PAC backed a series of incumbents facing primary challenges but lost a string of them: Assembly District 75 incumbent Walter Mosley lost to DSA-backed Phara Souffrant Forrest; Assembly District 34 incumbent Michael DenDekker lost to Jessica González-Rojas, and Assembly District 38 incumbent Michael Miller lost to Jenifer Rajkumar.
A coalition of business groups and companies, including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, and TaskRabbit, have also formed Flexible Work for New York (FWNY). SKDKnickerbocker, a major consulting firm with deep ties to the Democratic Party—particularly in New York—is running the coalition group’s PAC. SKDK Partners Josh Isay and Jennifer Cunningam are well connected to Chuck Schumer, Andrew Cuomo, and have lobbied for Uber and Lyft. Another SKDK partner, Anita Dunn, was a top Obama campaign aide who Joe Biden gave “effective control” of his 2020 presidential campaign. SKDK is providing its services to Uber seemingly free of charge.
One FWNY-backed candidate, Assembly District 36 incumbent Aravella Ssimotas, was beat by primary challenger, Zohran Mamdani, a Muslim backed by the DSA. Simotas called out a FWNY Spotify ad that said Simotas was “standing up to extremists to protect our values.”
In New York, the Cuomo connections may have already borne fruit. Governor Cuomo has stepped away from sharp rhetoric calling misclassification “fraud” and comparing the gig economy to sweatshops, instead signaling he is open to a compromise between labor and gig companies.
There are too many connections between Uber, Lyft, and Democrats at the state and federal levels for comfort. The Biden administration’s transition team is staffed by Silicon Valley insiders from Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and Amazon. The Department of Labor review team is led by Obama’s former acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, co-author of a 2015 study formalizing the concept of an “independent worker” now championed by Uber, and a contender for Secretary of Labor under Biden. Then there’s Tony West, Uber’s chief legal counsel, Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law, co-chair of Kamala Harris’ 2016 Senate transition team, and a longtime Kamala Harris advisor.
The gig companies understand what is at stake here, which is why they’ve spent a great deal of time and money cultivating connections and close ties to the Democratic Party apparatus in hopes to pre-empt any possible legislation in Illinois, New York, and at the federal level, that would fundamentally threaten their business model.
Update: This article was updated with comment from a Lyft spokesperson.