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Uber's Fight in Florida Is Getting Personal

The company is aiming political-campaign style attacks at a state senator blocking legislation that it favors.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

In its fight for statewide oversight on ride-hailing laws in Florida, Uber is dusting off the policy tactics the company notoriously employed in the days of David Plouffe — the company’s former SVP of policy and strategy, now turned adviser.

Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, made waves in August 2014 when he announced he would be heading up a new political campaign and the candidate was none other than Uber.

While the company’s policy operations are now being headed by Rachel Whetstone, Uber’s fight in Tallahassee is oddly reminiscent of a political campaign. Today, just days after releasing an attack ad against Senate President Andy Gardiner, Uber published an open letter to Gardiner signed by six Florida mayors.

It says, in part:

While other states across the country have passed ridesharing regulations, Florida is falling behind. Our state is poised to be global leader, but leading requires action. The House recently passed a modern, sensible framework for ridesharing with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote. It’s time for the Senate to take action and respond the needs of our constituents.

The bill in question, which garnered bipartisan support in the state’s House of Representatives and passed 108-10, creates a regulatory framework that addresses ride-hailing as a whole, from insurance to background check requirements for drivers. Much of this framework mirrors regulations passed in 27 other states.

The Senate, however, is choosing not to vote on this particular bill and instead has crafted what is strictly a statewide insurance bill that levies what Uber sees as hefty insurance requirements even when drivers are not on the app.

Seeing as state senators have both publicly and privately stated they would support the bill, according to an internal company source, Uber was confident that the bill would receive strong bipartisan support in the Senate, as it did in the House. So it’s no surprise the company is pushing for the vote. In the company’s mind, there is just a single hurdle: Gardiner.

Uber has no qualms about making public its firm belief that Gardiner’s refusal to allow this bill to go to a vote is tied to his close friendship with Paul Mears, the CEO of Orlando-based taxi company Mears Transportation. In remarks made during a conference call, Uber’s head of public policy of the U.S. Southeast, Colin Tooze, said:

“The Senate President was actively working to strengthen the taxi industry’s negotiating position through the insurance-only legislation sponsored by his hand-picked rules chair as it worked its way through multiple committee stops.”

This battle, which mirrors Uber’s fight against Bill de Blasio in New York late last year, is significant for a number of reasons. Prime among them is the fact that Florida is one of a few remaining regulatory battlefields for ride-hailing companies.

But Uber’s regulatory playbook typically involves the company entering into local markets, fighting local authorities, then taking the fight to state authorities and policymakers if it doesn’t win the local battle. This time, the company is leveraging its support among local authorities to try to get its way in the state Senate.

Uber is also using campaign-like political tactics it has rarely, if ever, used in a state policy battle. From attack ads to direct mail that highlights the history between Gardiner and Mears, Uber is running a full-fledged political campaign against a single opponent.

Re/code reached out to Gardiner, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

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