Amazon Hopes $1.5M Elects Pro-Business Seattle Leaders
SEATTLE — Brian Sweeney has a long list of complaints about Amazon, from the way it treats warehouse workers to the low taxes it pays and its effort to win concessions from cities to bring in jobs. So when he learned the online retail giant had poured $1 million into remaking the Seattle City Council with more business-friendly candidates, he pulled out his wallet.
The New York resident sent $15 to socialist council member Kshama Sawant, a target of the online retail giant. While that doesn't compare to Amazon's unprecedented spending Oct. 14, about 1,900 others also have donated to Sawant since then, her campaign says. It's a dramatic rise in support and a reflection of the risk Amazon is taking as it splashes into the politics of its liberal hometown.
Many in Seattle aren't happy with the council, but they also may not like a company headed by the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, trying to influence their vote. As historic income inequality fuels homelessness and soaring housing prices, some progressives elsewhere don't like it either.
"Amazon could do this in hundreds of places around the country with all the money they're not paying in taxes," said Sweeney, a 28-year-old software engineer turned carpenter in Valley Stream, New York.
With seven of the nine Seattle council seats in play Nov. 5, business interests see an opportunity to shift city leadership closer to the political center and away from a bent to potentially tax big companies to fund homeless services or improve public transit.
The council is officially nonpartisan, but Republicans stand little chance of getting elected in Seattle, and many of the business-backed candidates are moderate to progressive Democrats. The race will decide whether the council is dominated by socialists and extremely liberal Democrats or more centrist ones.
"We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle," Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said in a statement. "We believe it is critical that our hometown has a City Council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety."
Progressive Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are among those accusing Amazon of trying to buy the council.
The elections come a year after a political debacle that damaged the council's popularity. The leaders unanimously passed the "Amazon tax," designed to make lucrative companies contribute more to affordable housing for the homeless.
It repealed the tax after a revolt from Amazon, which would have had to pay around $11 million a year and threatened to halt its growth in the city. The company said Seattle didn't need more money and that it was "highly uncertain whether the City Council's anti-business positions or its spending inefficiency will change for the better."
The debate helped cement Amazon's awakening to local politics as the council's popularity slipped, especially over its handling of homelessness. Four council members decided not to seek re-election.
There's been little progress in the four years since the city declared a homelessness crisis. Many business interests support "sweeps" of homeless camps accompanied by teams to help people get services.
Liberal council members, including Sawant, say the sweeps are inhumane and don't work. She wants money for tiny-house villages.
Meanwhile, some in Sawant's district say she's more interested in building a national socialist movement than responding to their concerns. A large portion of her donations come from out of state.
Sawant helped make Seattle the first big city to adopt a $15-an-hour minimum wage. She frequently says people must choose sides in "class warfare" and has warned that a win by Amazon would embolden corporate interests to fight efforts to make the rich pay more in taxes or spread progressive policies like tenants' rights and paid sick leave laws.
The two liberal, vocally pro-union council members who are not up for re-election, Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzáles, didn't endorse Sawant in the primary.
But after Amazon weighed in, both enthusiastically endorsed her last week. She's running against Egan Orion, director of an annual gay pride festival in Seattle.
Gonzáles said Amazon's support might swing Orion's positions.
"When there's that much money being offered, there will be a quid-pro-quo expectation," she said. "Amazon has plenty of access to the council already. What they want is elected officials who are going to bend to their will."
At a recent debate, Orion pointed to his work in the LGBTQ community and with small businesses, saying, "That narrative does not match the person that I am or the way I am running this campaign."
He describes himself as a progressive but says more can be accomplished by negotiating with business leaders than by demonizing them.
Amazon gave $1 million this month to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, bringing its total contributions to the PAC this year to $1.5 million — a huge amount for a local election. Starbucks, Expedia and a development company started by late Microsoft founder Paul Allen also have contributed.
"Generally, folks have seen a council that talks a lot about progress on homelessness, on reducing traffic, on helping with our increasingly unaffordable housing stock, and they really just haven't seen progress," PAC executive director Markham McIntyre said. "With taxes going up year after year, they get frustrated when they're not seeing results."
So far, independent spending in the council races has reached more than $3.5 million.
Labor groups also are spending heavily, including Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy, which is backed by progressive Amazon investor Nick Hanauer and has raised nearly $500,000. The PAC of the hotel workers union Unite Here has raised even more.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, said he didn't know what effect Amazon's spending will have on the election but that he understood its desire to "rebalance" the council.
"They're showing that they care a lot about their hometown, just as labor cares a lot and social justice activists care a lot," Carlyle said.