SAN FRANCISCO -- The embattled ride-sharing company Uber found a defender in Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who called it a "pretty vital service" that was "disrupting the old order."
On Wednesday, a California judge fined the San Francisco-based company $7.3 million and recommended that it be suspended from operating in the state. When asked by reporters if the court's fine gave him pause, Bush replied, "No, not at all" but added that if the company had done something wrong, it should pay the fine.
Bush, who had arrived at his event at a tech startup here in an Uber X car, then recounted the story of an Uber driver in Los Angeles, whom he held up as a beneficiary of the sharing economy. "I met a guy when I was in Los Angeles 3 months ago that was an UCLA undergrad, chemistry major, and because of Uber he is going to medical school at UCLA - debt-free," Bush said. "Uber's giving that person a chance to start out and fulfill his dream. He wants to be a doctor."
Bush seized on the issue of Uber while fundraising and campaigning in the heart of the country's tech sector, and after Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a speech earlier this week warned that the "so-called 'gig' economy" was "raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future."
Uber, like other ride sharing companies, classifies drivers as independent contractors, instead of as staff employees with benefits like health insurance.
In an op-ed post on LinkedIn today, Bush countered that, "Big government liberals fundamentally can't embrace digital innovation because it threatens the way they govern. They see car-sharing services as a threat to the local government taxi cab cartels. They see food trucks and Airbnb as a threat to urban planning and the tax and fee racket that they've imposed on brick and mortar restaurants and hotels."
Addressing the question about healthcare for such contract workers, Bush told reporters that he favored a system of portable healthcare plans for catastrophic coverage with low premiums and high deductibles, as opposed to Obamacare.
The argument over the sharing economy is the latest battle between Republicans and Democrats in the presidential race over the nature of work itself. It comes after a week of attacks by Hillary Clinton that Bush was out of touch for saying in an interview that "people need to work longer hours." But Bush was talking about the availability of full-time work for those making less money because they work fewer than 40 hours per week, a point he clarified later while complaining that his comments had been taken out of context.
Speaking in liberal San Francisco to employees of the tech company Thumbtack, which matches consumers with local professionals, the Republican candidate veered from the usual opening remarks he delivers in Iowa and New Hampshire. In describing the problems facing entitlement programs, Bush used words like "disruption" and told the audience that, "national leaders ought to start advocating blowing up monopolies every possible place they can."
He also addressed questions from employees which ranged from same-sex marriage to net neutrality to what he would seek to emulate in President Obama.
Bush said he admired President Obama's charisma and his ability to communicate.
"If I could speak like Barack Obama, if I could light up a room like he does. Charisma is not a bad thing. It's a pretty effective tool to be able to take a message to a broader audience. And he is gifted beyond belief in that regard. Ideologically I don't share much of a philosophy with him, but I don't ascribe bad motives. I think his heart's in the right place. I just think his polices are wrong."
On same-sex marriage, Bush maintained that the country could protect gays and lesbians from discrimination while also protecting the rights of religious citizens to act on their conscience. He used the example of a florist to illustrate his point.
"If you're a florist and you have that deeply felt belief, you should if a gay couple comes in and says I want to buy flowers you should be obligated to sell them flowers. Doing otherwise would be discrimination. But if that couple asks you to participate in the wedding, and you said ,based on my conscience I shouldn't or I won't, you should not be fined, you should not have to close your business down."
Bush also talked about his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who fell and broke a bone in his neck. "My dad's in the hospital right now," he said.
And about three years ago he had pneumonia and he was in the ICU unit," Bush said, recalling that at that time, the family had been hacked.
"My siblings and I were writing to one another about this. It was a very troubling and trying time. And someone hacked into my sister's AOL account and got all of this information of children talking about the greatest man alive, and how we were preparing for his meeting his maker."
Later, when he spoke with reporters, Bush elaborated on this week's injury, saying that his father had "cracked the second vertebrae - the bone, thankfully - not the nerve endings. So he's in some pain and discomfort but I think he's in pretty good shape."
After the event ended, he graciously accepted the trademark tech hoodie, which, he joked, "won't work as well in Miami as it will here." And then he drove away in an Uber X.