Charlie Hales, the mayor of Portland, Ore., was running a zoning hearing last December when he missed a call on his cell from David Plouffe, the campaign mastermind behind Barack Obama’s ascent. Although Hales had never met him, Plouffe left a voice mail that had an air of charming familiarity, reminiscing about the 2008 rally when 75,000 Obama supporters thronged Portland’s waterfront. “Sure love your city,” Plouffe gushed. “I’m now working for Uber and would love to talk.”
Hales, like many mayors in America, could probably guess why Plouffe was trying to reach him. Uber’s made a name for itself by barging into cities and forcing politicians to respond. It started in 2010, providing swanky rides at the tap of an app in San Francisco. “I pushed a button, and a car showed up, and now I’m a pimp,” Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick said four years ago. The company has since expanded to take on lower-cost taxi service in more than 300 cities across six continents, ballooning to a $40 billion valuation. At the time of Plouffe’s call, Uber already operated in several Portland suburbs, and over the previous few months Hales’s staff had asked the company to please hold off on a Portland launch until the city could update taxi regulations. Plouffe may be a big name, but Hales didn’t immediately call him back.