Taking the wheel at Uber

Greg Nash

Uber’s new lobbying chief is steering the popular startup away from a ride-hailing pileup inside the Beltway.

Niki Christoff, a veteran not only of Capitol Hill but also Silicon Valley, comes in at a critical moment for Uber as lawmakers and regulators turn their eyes toward the burgeoning sharing economy. Uber is facing congressional scrutiny over alleged labor violations and safety concerns, all while fending off competition from taxis and other ride-hailing companies like Lyft.

Christoff’s role is to shape the conversation in Washington.

“They brought me in to figure out, ‘What can we be doing in Washington? What should we be doing in Washington?’ ” Christoff told The Hill in a recent interview.

Christoff relishes the opportunity of working at the intersection of politics and technology. A longtime Google executive and former campaign staffer for John McCainJohn McCainLots of (just) talk about 'draining the swamp' 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Is Georgia turning blue? MORE, she joined Uber as the director of federal affairs in late December to smooth over speed bumps that are slowing the startup’s progress on Capitol Hill.

Like much of Silicon Valley, Uber previously turned a blind eye to Washington and focused its attention on lobbying state and local governments. Says Christoff, “Now, the thought is, ‘We need to be telling Uber’s story in Washington.’ ”

It’s a tall task that even President Obama’s former genius campaign adviser, David Plouffe, couldn’t accomplish.

Plouffe joined Uber in 2014 to help shape the company’s global image, but his Washington connections and savvy for political spin did little to improve the reputation of the ride-sharing startup.

After less than a year, Uber relegated Plouffe to a role as special adviser and began rebuilding its communications and lobbying teams.

That’s where Christoff comes in. Uber recruited her to build a small army of lobbyists and formulate the startup’s plan of attack in Washington. With a budget that reached nearly half a million dollars last year and is only primed to grow, she’s hiring close to a dozen lobbyists to manage the company’s relationships with Congress, federal agencies and the press.

“We’re telling Uber’s story,” she said.

Who better to tell it than Christoff? She uses Uber religiously and has never ridden in a Lyft.

“I talk to every single Uber driver I ride with, and I did that before I started at Uber,” she said. “I’m very friendly.”

Christoff prefers to talk about Uber’s economic impact — how the ride-sharing service helps drivers earn a flexible income while providing an affordable means of transportation for people in low-income neighborhoods who do not own cars or have access to public transportation — but that’s putting it modestly.

These days, Christoff’s job involves fanning the flames on Capitol Hill.

Like many startups in the sharing economy, Uber is dealing with safety concerns. Critics say Uber is not regulated as heavily as taxis, leaving it up to the company to screen drivers.

The Kalamazoo mass shooting over the weekend didn’t help the matter. According to reports, the alleged shooter, Jason Dalton, was an Uber driver who may have been taking passengers around the time of his rampage.

Dalton passed a background check and had no criminal record that Uber could have flagged, the company said in a statement. But the shooting that left six dead and two wounded is adding fuel to the fire for critics who are questioning the strength of the Uber’s safety procedures.

“There are no perfect background checks,” Christoff admitted in an interview before the Kalamazoo shooting. “But we do our best to be as safe as we can.”

Christoff’s message to lawmakers is that Uber’s driver rating system provides passengers with more transparency than any taxi they hop inside.

“One of the things about Uber that keeps you safe is the technology,” she said. “You see your driver’s information when you get in. This gives you more oversight in choosing your driver.”

Christoff also points out that trips are monitored for passengers’ security. “Your location is recorded the entire time you are in the Uber,” she said. “People know where you are.”

This is just one of many issues Christoff is dealing with in Washington. Uber is also facing a group of angry labor activists who accuse the ride-hailing startup of taking advantage of its drivers.

In many cases, Uber’s drivers do not enjoy the same workplace protections the federal government affords full-time employees because they are classified as independent contractors. This is a growing concern for labor activists, not just at Uber but at a number of companies across America’s workforce.

While critics say Uber is exploiting drivers for cheap labor, Christoff reminds lawmakers they are providing these drivers, who often hold other jobs, with flexible work hours to empower them to earn additional income as their schedule permits.

Christoff’s ability to stay calm in the middle of crisis stems from her time on McCain’s 2008 campaign for the White House. She credits the experience with helping her learn how to “roll with the punches.”

“Being on a struggling presidential campaign is a tough job. The stakes are incredibly high,” Christoff said. “You become battle-hardened and learn skills for coping with the high pressure.”

After the Arizona senator’s presidential bid flopped, Google came calling and Christoff traded in her suit for a hoodie. “There was no dress code,” she recalled. “It’s jeans and T-shirts. I actually loved being in tech, where I could wear a hoodie.”

Transitioning from the campaign trail to Silicon Valley took some getting used to. “In tech, almost everyone is a liberal Democrat,” she said. “So I was treated a little bit like a foreign exchange student when I arrived at Google.”

Christoff grew to love Google. She cut her teeth at the search engine and eventually worked her way up to becoming a top-level communications executive, where she had the ear of the company’s former chairman, Eric Schmidt.

But she missed Washington. It’s no surprise — she’s always been a bit of a political nerd. In fact, as a Harvard student, she made a point of meeting each candidate in the 2000 presidential election when they stumped in nearby New Hampshire.

Shortly after returning to the nation’s capital as Google’s public relations director for the East Coast, Uber snatched her up with the promise of running the ride-hailing company’s federal lobbying team.

“It’s hard to leave Google,” Christoff said. “But this particular role involved me going back into the policy world, which is what I wanted to do long-term.”

Christoff hit the ground running. Her team is targeting the Sharing Economy Caucus, which was launched last year by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). They also reached out to Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerPolicymakers face long road to financial technology regulation Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel Why Yahoo's breach could turn the SEC into a cybersecurity tiger MORE (D-Va.), who has expressed an interest in the sharing economy.

Those efforts are already paying dividends. Her team is working behind the scenes with Issa and Swalwell to press the government to reimburse employees who use ride-sharing companies like Uber for work-related travel. Right now, federal employees are only reimbursed when they hail a cab.

Uber’s lobbying team is also pressing the Department of Defense to allow drivers to pick up and drop off soldiers on military bases.

Christoff is also putting her toes in the 2016 presidential race. She traveled to Cleveland last week to speak with GOP leaders about partnering up in July during the Republican National Convention. Her team also has its eye on the Democratic National Convention, which takes place around the same time in Philadelphia. She hopes to get delegates from both parties using the ride-hailing service to get around.

She believes the more politicians interact with Uber on their own phones, the more empathetic they’ll be in the legislative and rulemaking processes.

“It helps for them to understand how the technology works,” Christoff said.