The Uber Primary

The Democratic primary debate at Saint Anselm College came on a brutally cold Friday night in New Hampshire. When the wind blew, ice fell off the trees in crystalline shards.

It did little to dissuade the supporters and protestors at the college’s entrance. They chanted, they shouted, they yelled. They huddled together with the people cheering their same candidate and were thankful if somebody else was up wind.

But inside Karthik’s red minivan, summoned via app, that all could have been a world away. He kept the temperature at a solid 75, which he said was appreciated by fares in this weather, even for short trips. His stereo played classical music so softly it could only be detected during a lull in conversation at a tricky intersection.

Both refuge and escape, Ubers like Karthik were counted on by demonstrators of all stripes. Goffstown, where Saint Anselm College is located, has barely any public transportation.

Originally from Mumbai and by day a software engineer for a company in Massachusetts, Karthik was drawn across the border to Nashua and the surrounding area by the spike in political activity. But he frequents the area even when supporters of Democratic candidates aren’t jostling each other for the best sign-holding spots.

“I’ve been averaging around 85, 65 rides a month,” Karthik said of his time on the road. “I’m coming up on 113,000 miles as we speak.” His accent is notable, but his diction is clear, and his long arms make each turn of the wheel seem graceful and unhurried. He has two daughters pursuing a graduate education.

“That’s quite an expense to suddenly have mid-career. Instead I would like to be sitting at home watching a Netflix Movie. But it’s better I work now, and get that done.”

The legal loopholes that have allowed Uber to classify drivers as contractors instead of employees have drawn some sharp criticism from the progressive candidates many flocked here to see. In fact last May Bernie Sanders voiced support for a ride-share driver’s strike in 10 cities.

The regulation the progressive branch of the Democratic party supports could have a major impact on ride share services. Was Karthik concerned about that eating into his revenues from driving for Uber?

“No. If it affects me it affects me, but I mean you can’t control everything in your life. What you do is you look out for opportunities, make your money and move on to the next thing.”

In fact, while Karthik was unwilling to plainly state who he planned to vote for in the Massachusetts primary, he admitted that in 2016 he cast a ballot for the “gentleman from Vermont.” The “fresh faced young chap” with the hard to pronounce name might win this time, and he had concerns about the ability of any candidate to overcome powerful healthcare lobbies in just four years, but Karthik felt that the proper goal for any candidate is pretty simple.

“It should not be lip service, and that’s what’s been happening. Just give me my daily bread and butter. I’m putting in probably 90 hours a week and some large percentage of people in the US must be doing that as well.”

Josue, a fellow Uber driver also picking up fares that night confessed he didn’t follow politics on the mainland closely, but had similar feelings. Politicians, he insisted, were pretty much all the same. He was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and while he didn’t vote he kept up with the general news.

“The system,” Josue said as he drove across a long bridge in the dark New Hampshire night, “it doesn’t change. I’m hopeless about it.”

His home town is still suffering from the cumulative effects of hurricanes and earthquakes, along with an immensely unpopular territorial government, on top of widespread federal mismanagement. In the midst of this, San Juan’s outspoken Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz took a position as a co-chair of the Sanders campaign.

Despite being full citizens of the US, people living in Puerto Rico are assigned no electoral college votes. Residents do have some theoretical power to influence the direction of party primaries. But with only 59 delegates of the 4,750 total sent to the nominating convention, and a primary in late March, the island’s influence is miniscule.

Was there one candidate who gave him any hope at all?

“You know what? Bernie Sanders,” Josue said after a moment’s reflection.

Justin McGown is a graduate student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling concentration.


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