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Uber hired two former John Tory campaigners to fight Toronto battle

Kristy Bates, a marketing manager with Uber, joins supporters, including drivers, customers and company employees, as they rally outside of Toronto City Hall on Wednesday, May 6, 2015.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Two key members of the team that propelled John Tory to election victory have recently been hired by Uber, the ride-sharing company locked in a legal battle against the City of Toronto but publicly championed by the mayor.

Stepping up its campaign at City Hall, the Silicon Valley-based ride-sharing company has hired Nick Kouvalis and John Duffy, The Globe and Mail has learned. Mr. Kouvalis, the mastermind behind Rob Ford's 2010 campaign who later steered Mr. Tory's 2014 win, is conducting public-opinion polling for Uber Toronto. Mr. Duffy – Mr. Tory's campaign policy chair – has been hired as a lobbyist. Both were brought on in the past few months.

"We're choosing our firms based on their ability to do the job," Uber Toronto general manager Ian Black said in an interview Wednesday. "We heard many references that they were very smart, very good at what they did, and provided good advice."

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He said he was not aware when hiring them about two months ago that both firms – Mr. Kouvalis's Campaign Research and Mr. Duffy's StrategyCorp – are led by former Tory campaign strategists. Until just last month, a separate firm, Crestview Strategy, was registered to lobby at City Hall on behalf of Uber.

Mr. Black summed up Mr. Kouvalis's research so far by saying it shows that Toronto residents are unsatisfied with their current transportation options and that there is "broad support throughout the city for Uber." That research, he said, can be provided to city councillors "looking for information on where the city stands on this."

Mr. Kouvalis declined to comment on his relationship with Uber on Wednesday, citing his policy not to discuss client matters. But he emphasized that his company is involved only in research, and not lobbying. "We do not lobby public office holders," he said. "We just do not do that."

Mr. Duffy, who played a significant role in creating Mr. Tory's campaign centrepiece – the SmartTrack regional transit plan – wrote in an e-mailed statement that he "served as a volunteer on the John Tory mayoral campaign," and since then, his relationship to the mayor's office has been as a lobbyist. He emphasized that his company has been in full compliance with the city's lobbyist registration rules.

The city requires lobbyists to register with the city before contacting members of council on issues. Mr. Duffy has been registered as a lobbyist on the city's registry for Uber Canada since mid-March.

Even before he officially took office in December, Mr. Tory has been a vocal supporter of Uber. Just this week, he succeeded in having city council push back a decision on taxi licensing to allow for Uber and similar technologies to be a part of the taxi debate.

"The mayor has been clear since day one of his administration that technologies like Uber are not going away," the mayor's spokesperson Amanda Galbraith said in a statement. "The mayor strongly believes we need a modern, safe, efficient and effective ground transportation network in the city."

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When asked whether Uber's recent hirings have influenced the mayor's stand, Ms. Galbraith pointed to the fact that Mr. Tory's comments on ride-sharing predate the recent hirings.

The City of Toronto announced late last year that it is seeking an injunction against the company, claiming that its uberX service – which pairs ordinary drivers, and not licensed taxicabs, with paid passengers – breaks local by-laws. That case is set to be heard in courts later this month.

In the meantime, Uber has stepped up its efforts to try to persuade policy makers to create new rules for ride-sharing. According to a search of the city's lobbyist registry, Uber has registered to lobby almost all members of city council in recent months. Mr. Black and other Uber officials have met with the mayor and several members of his staff in the past few months, including meeting with Mr. Tory's chief of staff, Chris Eby, just last week.

On Wednesday, Uber escalated its campaign, organizing a rally of dozens of supporters and uberX drivers outside City Hall.

But the taxi industry, too, has lobbied hard at City Hall against Uber. Just this week, one of the city's biggest taxi companies, Co-op Cabs, launched an ad campaign questioning Uber's safety policies.

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National Food Reporter

Ann Hui is the national food reporter at The Globe and Mail. Previously, she worked as a national reporter and homepage editor for theglobeandmail.com and an online editor in News. More

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