Lyft Hub in West Oakland. Credit: Ricky Rodas

The ride-hailing giant Lyft is bankrolling a campaign to unseat Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan in this year’s election, according to public records and interviews.

On Monday, Lyft contributed $100,000 to a local political action committee set up in July by several pro-development “YIMBY” housing activists. Lyft’s donation accounts for 90% of the total funds raised by the committee so far. Under state election laws, the committee can raise and spend almost unlimited amounts of money supporting or opposing candidates, but it can’t directly coordinate with any candidate.

The original name of the Lyft-financed committee, “East Bay Housing Action,” indicated it would be focused on housing issues. But its creators changed the name several times since July, eventually landing on “Committee for an Affordable East Bay supporting Derreck Johnson and opposing Rebecca Kaplan for Oakland City Council At-Large 2020.”

Lyft hasn’t been involved in housing policy debates in Oakland, but the company provided the following statement: “Lyft believes it is important to engage in the political system in order to bring about real change and is not shy about advocating on the issues that are important to our drivers and riders. That’s why we’re supporting candidates like Derreck Johnson who are concerned about the economic recovery of our state as we emerge from this historic crisis.”

Kaplan has clashed with Lyft and its competitor, Uber.

Since 2017, Kaplan has sought to place a tax on Lyft and Uber rides. Currently, Lyft and Uber operate in Oakland untaxed, in part because they’ve classified their workers as independent contractors instead of employees. Kaplan’s most recent attempt to tax the companies was this year when she proposed a ballot measure that, if approved by voters, would have imposed a 50 cent tax on Lyft and Uber rides. The revenue would have been used to pay for road and other transportation infrastructure. The measure failed to get enough City Council votes to be placed on the November ballot.

“This is not about housing,” Kaplan said of Lyft’s financial contribution to the campaign committee opposing her. “This is about a billionaire corporation that doesn’t want to pay its fair share in taxes and wants to abuse its workers.”

Lyft, which is currently valued at over $8 billion, is waging a statewide campaign to overturn Assembly Bill 5, which reclassified  Uber and Lyft drivers as employees, making them eligible for company-paid benefits.

Veena Dubal, a professor at U.C. Hastings College of Law, said Lyft is spending millions in elections and on lobbying to get rid of the safety net and avoid taxes. “They have hired right wing political consultants, research firms, and public relations firms,” she said. “And they are employing the exact same tactics as the tobacco, alcohol, oil, and agricultural industries have employed in the regulatory arena.”

Kaplan told The Oaklandside she thinks Lyft wants to unseat her also because she hasn’t supported some of the company’s requests to change its contract with the city to operate its rental bike and scooter franchises.

“They got a deal in San Francisco that essentially gave them a monopoly and had really horrible pricing,” said Kaplan. “Then they tried pitching the same deal to Oakland and Berkeley and Emeryville. I said no, why would we give you this kind of exclusivity on crappy terms?”

Ernest Brown, the chair of the committee opposing Kaplan, wrote in an email to The Oaklandside that housing is the reason he and others created the PAC and that he doesn’t know why Lyft gave his committee $100,000. “You’ll have to ask Lyft why they donated,” he wrote.

Brown blamed Kaplan for the city’s failure to “end exclusionary zoning near Rockridge BART,” and he wrote that Kaplan recently “voted against a permit for 360 homes—including 108 affordable homes—in a high-opportunity neighborhood by Lake Merritt,” a reference to the Lakehouse Commons project.

Two years ago, Kaplan tried to advance a resolution to allow denser housing, including in ares like Rockridge, but her proposal was opposed by other councilmembers who chose not to bring the item to a City Council meeting.

Last November, Kaplan voted along with half of the council to uphold an appeal that would have stopped the Lakehouse Commons project because she was in support of a different proposal to build fewer total housing units, but with more of them affordable and priced at levels more accessible to low-income renters. Mayor Libby Schaaf broke the council’s tie vote to advance the project. Since then, Kaplan has supported the Lakehouse Commons proposal. In February, she voted along with the rest of the council to seek $5 million in state funding to help construct the apartment building.

Brown is also the chair of the board of directors of YIMBY Action, a nonprofit that advocates for more housing construction through upzoning, streamlining permitting, and more funding for affordable housing.

Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action said her group isn’t affiliated with the political action committee, but that YIMBY Action did endorse Derreck Johnson, who is running against Kaplan.

“I’m not on the ground in Oakland, but my impression is that many YIMBYs believe Johnson will be a housing champion, but appreciate that Kaplan is not deeply anti-housing,” she wrote in an email.

Another officer of the committee that received the Lyft funds, Nico Nagle, referred questions to Brown. But Nagle, who works at the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a developer-backed group that also advocates for more housing construction, did say his work with the committee opposing Kaplan is something he’s undertaking independently of his employer.

The Housing Action Coalition did, however, also make a $1,000 contribution to the anti-Kaplan committee.

Todd David, the executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, said the contribution is the “extent of the group’s involvement in the committee.”

David criticized what he believes is Kaplan’s record on housing, while lauding Johnson’s supporters as “a ‘who’s who’ of affordable housing champions, including Kamala Harris, Libby Schaaf, Buffy Wicks, and Lateefah Simon.”

Victoria Fierce, a co-founder of the YIMBY group East Bay for Everyone, also contributed $1,251 to the anti-Kaplan PAC.

The PAC has spent $16,000 on television ads opposing Kaplan, and $64,000 on ads supporting Johnson, according to public records.

Kaplan said her record on housing production and tenants’ rights is strong, and she believes the real issue is that Lyft wants her out of office.

Other Oakland politicians have sought support from Lyft. Mayor Libby Schaaf partnered with the company last year on a program the company said in a press statement was about bringing “more transportation options to historically underserved Oaklanders.” Lyft gave the local nonprofit TransForm $700,000 to expand its bike rental stations in East Oakland, and expand a program of subsidized and free Lyft rides and scooter and bike rentals for low-income residents.

At the same time, Lyft lobbyists were opposing Kaplan’s tax proposal.

“They’re not paying their fair share for our public infrastructure that they’re doing business on,” Kaplan said. “They’re obviously coming after me for this.”

Correction: we misspelled Derreck Johnson’s first name. This story was also updated after publication with a statement from Lyft.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.