In its battle with auto dealers across the nation, Tesla has begun deploying its own lobbyists to take on the dealer groups’ well-financed troops. At the same time, another tactic may be even more effective – letting lawmakers drive a Model S themselves.
Letting the car speak for itself seems to have done the trick in North Carolina. The state Senate had already voted unanimously to block online auto sales when Tesla parked a Model S at the capitol and invited lawmakers to get behind the wheel.
“When you accelerate it, it was the same sort of feeling I got when I test-drove a Mustang Boss back when I was 23 years old,” Republican House Speaker Thomas Tillis told the Raleigh News & Observer. And thus ended the anti-Tesla legislation – the state House never even voted on it.
The anti-Tesla bill was sponsored by State Senator Thomas Apodaca, who received $8,000 in 2012 from the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, part of $152,000 in campaign contributions the group made in the state that year. Interestingly, Speaker Thomas Tillis also received an $8,000 check from the dealers.
Republican Representative Tim Moore, a self-described “car guy,” said, “There were people here who didn’t even know there was such a vehicle as this.” He and his colleagues let the Senate bill die because “we just realized we needed to have more of a conversation about what was best for consumers.”
Auto dealers have spent $86.8 million on state election races and $53.7 million on federal campaigns over the last 10 years, while Tesla has invested less than $500,000, according to Bloomberg, which likened Tesla’s challenge to that faced by Microsoft in the 1990s, before it learned to play by the rules of our privately-financed democracy, and started assembling its own lobbying team.
In Washington, seven members of Congress are auto dealers, and the National Automobile Dealers Association has an annual lobbying budget of about $3 million. Tesla has only one registered lobbyist so far – but it does have a showroom on K Street.
Tesla and the dealers are battling it out in at least seven states, with mixed results so far. New York’s Assembly scrapped a bill that would have stopped Tesla sales in the state. Virginia has granted Tesla one showroom license. In Texas, legislation to repeal existing restrictions failed to come to a vote, despite Model S test drives for legislators, and a passionate personal appeal from Elon Musk. State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, plans to introduce a compromise bill in the legislature’s next session.