The Uber Bill and the Politics of Coincidence

February 7, 2016 by By Fred Schepartz

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Photo: Reuters

Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Other times, when one connects the dots, where there is smoke, there is, in fact, fire.

Such is the case of the Rideshare bill that passed both houses of the Wisconsin legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in May 2015, despite the large body of evidence of Uber’s well-known safety issues. In fact, within a week of its passage, according to Madison police reports, Uber drivers allegedly assaulted two female passengers.

The law created a weak statewide regulatory framework allowing Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, i.e., Lyft and Uber) to operate anywhere in the state of Wisconsin. The new law also contains a pre-emption clause, which prohibits local governments from regulating TNCs above and beyond the scope of the bill.

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Rep. Tyler August

An Open Records request of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tyler August (R-32) and Sen. Paul Farrow (R-33), along with major champion of the bill Rep. Cory Mason (D-66), reveals one man whose name seemed to frequently pop up as clearly serving as a lobbyist for Uber:

Ryan Murray.

Is the name Ryan Murray familiar? Murray served as policy director for Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and was appointed deputy chief of staff once Walker took office. Then, despite an utter lack of qualifications, Walker tabbed Murray to serve as Chief Operating Officer of the struggling Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation in July of 2012.

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Ryan Murray

What does “lack of qualifications” mean?

At the time of the appointment, Murray had no real private sector experience. He studied political science at UW-Superior and Macalester College, but did not graduate. His resume essentially is that of a political operative. In fact, his appointment to WEDC appears to be pure cronyism, a reward for his loyalty to Walker.

But don’t take my word for it. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WEDC Vice President Lee Swindall resigned because he was fed up with Murray’s incompetence. After WEDC CEO Reed Hall urged him to stay, Swindall rescinded his resignation. One of his conditions for staying on was reduced contact with Murray and his staff.

Murray resigned from his post at WEDC three days after Walker’s reelection. In his CV, he is credited with helping turn WEDC around, which is utter fiction. Clearly, Murray was more the problem than the solution for WEDC.

But as so often happens in Wisconsin politics, Murray landed on his feet and was hired by The Firm Consulting, LLC, which is a lobbying firm.

As they say, follow the money.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign database, Ryan Murray has made no political donations. However, Murray’s boss, Buddy Julius, The Firm Consulting’s managing partner and president has made contributions, as has another employee of the lobbying firm, Gerald Julius.

Between now and 2010, only four Democrats currently serving in the legislature have received political contributions from either Buddy or Gerald Julius: Mason, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-18) and Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa (D-8) and Sen. Julie Lassa (D-24).

All four of these Democrats voted in favor of the Rideshare bill. Goyke is the son of Gary Goyke, who serves as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of Taxicab Owners.

Mason received donations of $250 on June 29, 2014, $250 on October 10, 2012 and $250 on October 4, 2010; Zamarippa, $250 on October 20, 2014 and $300 on July 10, 2012; Goyke, $100 on October 27, 2014; and Lassa, $250 on October 9, 2012.

In addition, Gerald Julius made donations to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee (ADCC) of $250 on June 30, 2015, $500 on October 14, 2014, $250 on October 7, 2014 and $75 on November 5, 2010. In case you’re thinking perhaps Gerald Julius is a flaming liberal, it should be noted that he also contributed to the Assembly Republican Campaign Committee and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate.

Neither Julius contributed to any Senate Democrat campaign committees. It should also be noted that the Rideshare bill had much greater support among Assembly Democrats than Senate Democrats. This reality is clearly reflected in the The Firm Consulting’s donation pattern. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-4) supported the bill because she wanted to see statewide regulation of TNCs, but spoke out strongly against the pre-emptive clause.

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Rep. Cory Mason

Unlike Sen. Taylor, Rep. Mason appeared to have drunk the Uber Kool-Aid, staunchly praising Uber and touting their future operations in his district. Sure enough, the month after the bill passed, Uber announced that it would begin servicing Racine and Lake Geneva, Rep. August’s district.

The most recent donation to the ADCC occurred two months after the Rideshare bill was passed.

Pre-emptive strike on local control
Buddy and Gerald Julius were busy greasing palms in late 2014, about eight months after Uber and Lyft started operating in Madison. At that time, the City of Madison began conducting sting operations against Uber and Lyft drivers, which resulted in hefty fines against them for violating city taxi rules. At the same time, Rep. August threatened Madison with a loss of state aid if the stings continued. (August’s aide, Luke Bacher, brought up the prospect of the Rideshare legislation at that time, which was passed a year later.)

Despite the threat from August, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin continued drafting ordinances that would protect citizens from potential dangers of the unregulated TNCs and level the playing field among them and the city’s four taxi companies. These ordinances were then outlawed by the legislature.

While The Firm Consulting was getting its ducks in a row for the eventual Rideshare bill, in October 2014, Gerald Julius donated $250 to Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-15), who voted for the bill despite the fact that his brother owns American Taxi in Milwaukee. Sanfelippo claims that he does not actually own the business, even though, as reported by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy, he is registered as an owner with the state Department of Financial Institutions.

Decide for yourself. Coincidence? Do the dots connect? Do you smell smoke?

In this reality of politics as usual a fire burning down of our democracy?

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