"Rahm should stop back seat driving in Uber debate"

Suntimes 4/27/2016

When we first reported on Hollywood uber-agent Ari Emanuel’s financial stake in Uber a couple years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to deflect conflict-of-interest questions: “He doesn’t need his older brother to get rich.”

The mayor’s lame wisecrack comes to mind again as his office again is working furiously to shut down a City Council effort that could affect Uber’s fortunes here.

Mayor Emanuel has joined brother Ari’s company in opposing an ordinance that 31 aldermen — a majority of the 50-member Council — say they support. The measure would impose a series of regulations on drivers for Uber and the other, far-smaller, rideshare companies.

Uber drivers would have to get public chauffeur licenses from the city, undergoing fingerprinting and background checks just like the cabbies and limo drivers they compete with for business on the streets of Chicago.

The rideshare companies would be permitted to use only vehicles that have passed safety inspections and that are not too old.

City Hall also would require that at least 5 percent of the vehicles in service through Uber and the other rideshare companies are accessible to wheelchairs. Again, that’s a policy that taxi companies already have to follow.

These issues have come up in cities across the country. In Austin, Texas, voters will be asked May 7 whether they support a city ordinance approved last year to require fingerprinting of rideshare drivers.

The current measure in Chicago’s City Council was introduced last month but has not come to a vote.

A similar effort to impose tighter regulations on rideshare companies failed narrowly in a Council committee vote. That legislation’s sponsor, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), says Emanuel aides all but pounced on him when he pushed for a committee vote.

“They literally ran up and stood over me,” Waguespack says. “They said, ‘You’re not going to call for a vote, are you?’

“The mayor’s office is pushing as hard as they can. They’re rabid.”

An Emanuel spokesman confirmed the mayor opposes the pending Council proposal. City officials say most rideshare drivers are on the road less than 10 hours a week.

“Requiring the same public chauffeur license we mandate for full-time taxi drivers would shrink the industry, eliminate part-time job options for thousands of individuals and have a significant impact on the city budget,” says Emanuel aide Grant Klinzman, citing revenues from rideshare companies.

Among those pushing for Uber in Chicago and elsewhere is David Plouffe — who, like Emanuel, is a former aide to President Barack Obama. A City Hall lobbyist for Uber is the husband of a former Emanuel aide.

But it’s the mayor’s brother’s ties that are the most problematic.

As unfunny as Emanuel’s joke about Uber was, he is right in saying Ari Emanuel has become rich on his own. Ari Emanuel also is welcome to get much richer through the investment in Uber by his Beverly Hills-based William Morris Endeavor agency.

With Uber’s market value recently estimated at $68 billion by Forbes magazine, it’s likely the return on investment will be astronomical, regardless of what happens in Chicago.

Yet, given all of the other problems facing the city, it’s perplexing to see the mayor’s office spend political capital siding with Uber. The ordinance could even the playing field with the suffering taxi industry and provide rideshare customers with the same protections they get when riding in cabs.

And in light of his brother’s stake in Uber, Emanuel might have just sat out this debate, leaving the fate of the rideshare regulations entirely to the aldermen.

Rahm deserves no credit for Ari’s Hollywood success. But it doesn’t look good for the mayor to act in a way that could make his brother even richer.