Prop 1 undone by campaign’s underlying motive, threatening tone

Mark McKinnon, who has worked a few campaigns out of Austin, including a couple that elected a president, tells a story about his work in 1991 for Bob Lanier, a wealthy Houston businessman who ran successfully for mayor of that city.

McKinnon and other Lanier operatives were chewing over whether to direct money into television, mailings or a ground operation when Lanier cut off the discussion. Leaning back with his cowboy boots on the table, Lanier told his crew, “Boys, just spend it ’til you waste it.”

Which is what Uber and Lyft just did in Austin. Other than the winning part.

Losing 56 percent to 44 percent, by definition, meant the bombastic bucks went for naught, of course. But even before the votes defeating Proposition 1 rolled in Saturday evening, I was already hearing from people speculating that Lyft and Uber might have been able to put their own ride-hailing rules into the Austin City Code if they’d decided to spend only $1 million instead of $8.6 million.

The monster money, the theory goes, became the message, a losing message. One city politico I talked to Sunday, however, called that line of thinking “too cute.” If nothing else, it’s unprovable, and oversimplifies what happened over the past couple of months. Maybe the ride-hailing companies, given their history and what they were trying to do, never really had a chance in Austin.

Uber and Lyft, through their five or six commercials (repeated hundreds of times on Austin airwaves), scads of carpet-bombed mailers, Facebook and print ads, tag lines on their apps and alleged robotexts, tried to make the race about many things: overregulation by a liberal Austin City Council, the cost to taxpayers, the shortcomings of different kinds of background checks, lost revenue for strapped ride-hailing drivers, misleading ballot language, drunken driving and the invisible hand of the all-powerful cab companies (truly a hard sell, given their deteriorating place in the transportation firmament).

But what they studiously didn’t mention, even though it has been a primary part of the argument when all this came before the council last fall, was the effect on their business model. In other words, their bottom line.

It is not hard to fathom why. Forcing the city to spend at least $650,000 to hold an election (while complaining about the possible cost to taxpayers of regulating ride-hailing companies) over how a particular ordinance affects your corporate balance sheet is not likely to stir voter passion.

But obscuring that uncomfortable but fundamental aspect of what was at stake forced the companies into all sorts of dicey misdirections in their campaign pitches. And in an educated city such as Austin, particularly one forced to pay close attention by the onslaught of advertising, the inconsistencies were easily detected. The media, including my Statesman colleague Nolan Hicks and I, couldn’t help but write and talk about them. The opposition, ill-funded as it was (final dollar count: $170,000 or so), had only to sit back and issue scalding quotes here and there.

And then make sure to get out their vote. For the old Austin political hands involved, that task amounted to muscle memory.

But perhaps the companies’ biggest hurdle was their image. Yes, the opposition folks managed to insert the word “bully” into every quote. But that label only resonated so well because of the companies’ (short) history in Austin and around the country.

People remember that they came into town in June 2014 — well after the city had made it clear to a predecessor company called Sidecar that giving rides for money required city permits — and just started operating illegally. Fines were assessed; cars were impounded. Lyft and Uber didn’t care. They just kept doing it until the previous City Council acquiesced and passed what were clearly presented at the time as temporary regulations.

Then, once Council Member Ann Kitchen and a majority of the new council moved toward imposing the fingerprint-based background check requirement that the ride-hailing companies say causes too much “friction” for potential drivers, Uber and Lyft unsheathed the threat to leave Austin. We love our drivers and our customers so much, the companies said, that if we don’t get what we want from the City Council, we will throw the drivers out of work and leave the tipsy customers on the curb holding darkened smart phones.

The threat brings to mind what was, for my generation, a famous magazine image. The (now-departed) National Lampoon humor rag put the face of a handsome black-and-white dog on the cover of its January 1973 edition. But the picture also showed a man’s hand pointing a revolver at the dog’s left temple. The dog, in a triumph of photo-shopping or just great luck, was looking fearfully sideways toward the gun.

“If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog,” the headline said.

Lyft and Uber told Austin, essentially, “pass our regulations or we’ll kill your dog.” The dog, in this case, was both the drivers and the customers. The companies claimed to have 10,000 to 15,000 drivers here and to have given 2.5 million rides in their first year here. Surely that would translate into more than enough terrified terriers and petrified poodles to win an election in which just 87,000 people turned out to vote.

No. Prop 1 got 38,539 “for” votes versus 48,673 saying, “Go ahead — fire away.”

The companies will pull the trigger Monday morning. (Lyft is calling it a “pause.” Or would that be “paws”?)

There are other, smaller ride-hailing companies that will employ some of those drivers and pick up many of those stranded customers. Uber or Lyft might come back to Austin, especially if there is some sort of compromise ordinance passed by the City Council. Or the Texas Legislature, with its preference for free-marketry, might override all of this next spring.

Who knows how all this will settle out?

But this much is clear: Lyft and Uber wasted their money. Threats are not good politics, at least not in Austin.

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