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For more than a year in Minneapolis and at the State Capitol, Uber and Lyft have waged a battle to stave off regulations championed by progressive Democrats and organized groups of drivers — but the multibillion-dollar companies have not spent big to make their feelings known.

Instead, in a tactic echoing their original surge into taxi markets across the globe a decade ago, the rideshare giants have tried to marshal allies who use and rely on their service, including riders, drivers and some disability groups.

The effectiveness of that strategy is now being tested, after the Minneapolis City Council approved minimum pay requirements for drivers. Uber and Lyft declared they would leave, and council members have been inundated with feedback.

"I've received hundreds of emails and phone calls myself," City Council Member Aurin Chowdhury said at a recent meeting.

Lyft has said it will leave Minneapolis, and Uber has said it will leave the entire metro when the new minimums take effect May 1, although there's a chance the council could soften its ordinance. At the Capitol, the current version of proposed statewide regulations is also unpalatable to Uber and Lyft, but there's hope among Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic leaders that a compromise can be reached.

But in a twist that reveals how rapidly ensconced the companies have become, the one-time upstart disrupters now hold an air of establishmentism; center-left politicians, civic groups and business leaders now are among their chief boosters. On Thursday, an Uber-spearheaded campaign — #BringRidesBack — formally launched. The effort, designed to mobilize people to email lawmakers, is a partnership that includes the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, Minneapolis Downtown Council, Hospitality Minnesota, Minnesota Business Partnership and left-leaning national tech advocacy groups.

Of course, both companies are also spending money on lobbyists to influence policymakers in public and behind the scenes.

How much are they spending?

Lyft and Uber declined to reveal the total amount of money they have spent on advertising, mobilizing and lobbying efforts. But disclosures filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board offer a window into their lobbying at the Legislature.

In 2023, Uber spent $80,000 on three registered lobbyists, including two New York-based company executives. Lyft has six lobbyists registered in Minnesota and spent $140,000 last year. Lyft spent more in 2014 — in excess of $233,000 — the year the apps fought to get off the ground.

The companies were far from the biggest spenders in last year's session, according to state campaign finance data — contradicting a characterization by some critics that the multinational giants have essentially pocketed politicians via the greenback. For context, Xcel Energy spent the most on lobbyists in 2023 — $2 million — and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spent $1.9 million.

Uber and Lyft are not above pouring cash into public debates; the Washington Post reported that Uber spent half a billion dollars to try to repair its image in 2019 after a string of scandals. In 2015, the company spent $9 million supporting a failed referendum to repeal a crackdown by the city of Austin, Texas.

In Minneapolis, Lyft and Uber appear to have spent little trying to influence last year's City Council elections, in which all 13 seats were up — as was the balance of power between a traditional DFL group aligned with Mayor Jacob Frey and a more progressive group. The latter prevailed in enough races to create the majority that overruled Frey's veto this month.

A review of city campaign donations to candidates, as well as political action committees supporting candidates, turned up scant donations that could be readily linked to the rideshare companies.

The lone donor with clear ties was Joel Carlson, a longtime lobbyist who represents Uber and 17 other clients. Carlson made four donations totaling $1,450 to the campaigns of Frey and three candidates aligned with him.

"I've been contributing to these people for a decade," he said in an interview, characterizing himself as a longtime donor in local politics separate from any one issue. "I have issues in front of the the City Council that are unrelated to Uber."

While Uber and Lyft have the ear of Frey and top Walz administration officials — they each had a seat on a state task force that examined driver compensation last year — they've failed to make inroads with those pushing the regulations they don't like.

Sen. Omar Fateh said at a recent Senate hearing that he didn't attend any of the task force meetings and that the companies' entreaties to progressives on the Minneapolis City Council have been rebuffed.

"I gave up trying," Carlson said, explaining that several council members didn't return his calls.

Lyft representatives scored a video call with two of the ordinance's co-sponsors in late February, but CJ Macklin, the company's senior manager for policy communications, said it was brief and council members didn't ask any questions.

"In all instances related to the Minneapolis ordinance and last year's vetoed state bill, those efforts to collaborate were soundly rejected by the bill sponsors in favor of legislation devoid of any understanding of how our industry works," he said.

The mobilization script

Carlson said he sees riders as advocates for the apps, which include contact information and can send push notifications to their phones. And there are plenty of riders, he said, with some 300,000 trips made in the Twin Cities every week.

"People are concerned with what's going to happen with these services because they have come to rely on them," Carlson said.

When Uber first arrived in major cities from New York to London, it was met with a combination of excitement from a younger generation seeking inexpensive and smartphone-ready rides and with outrage from the taxi industry, which foresaw ridesharing as a threat to its existence.

The company's most visible advocates were often riders who, mobilized by social media, rallied to its defense and packed government meetings. The company's playbook, however, was not without friction. In cities across the nation, as in Minneapolis, the company charged into markets — "illegally" in the words of Frey, who was a City Council member at the time — putting local governments on the defensive. Frey was the lead sponsor of the city's ' current rideshare ordinance.

The current mobilization script harkens back to a campaign almost a decade ago to let Uber operate at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

In 2016, Uber assembled its drivers, clad in matching blue T-shirts, to protest the Metropolitan Airports Commission's rules for ride-hail drivers to work the airport.

But the dynamic among drivers might be different today. While some drivers have recently begun publicly speaking out against the Minneapolis ordinance, it was a group of well-organized drivers who started the current campaign for wage minimums.