Amazon Is Spending an Unprecedented Amount on City Council Races

Amazon's world headquarters in Seattle, Washington. The company has spent over $1 million on the city's local elections this year.

Amazon's world headquarters in Seattle, Washington. The company has spent over $1 million on the city's local elections this year. Shutterstock

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In Seattle, Amazon has spent over a million dollars trying to get pro-business candidates elected to the city council.

On November 5, Seattle residents will vote on who should sit in seven of the city’s nine council seats. The last time seven seats were on the ballot was in 2015, when “satellite spending,” or money spent by independent groups like political action committees, totalled $785,000. So far this year, satellite spending on the race stands at $2.6 million. That’s in large part because there’s a newly interested party in the city council races: the city’s largest tech company.

Amazon has donated $1.45 million to the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, a PAC run by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce that doesn’t make contributions directly to candidates, but is campaigning for seven endorsed candidates with mail advertisements and door-to-door canvassers. Leading up to the primary, the group had spent nearly three times as much as the next highest spending independent PAC.

Egan Orion is a CASE-endorsed candidate running against incumbent Kshama Sawant, a member of the small Socialist Alternative party who has often gone head-to-head with Amazon in local policy fights (in 2018, she spearheaded the ultimately unsuccessful push to impose a new tax on the city’s largest corporations). So far, CASE has spent almost $12,000 fighting Sawant’s reelection, and spent almost $123,000 supporting Orion’s candidacy. 

Olga Laskin, Orion’s campaign manager, said that he sought the CASE endorsement because he wanted to show his support for local businesses. “CASE’s money is spent independent of our campaign,” she said. “Egan is a small business owner, and CASE is made up of 80% small businesses.”

More than 30 Amazon employees have also donated almost $17,000 directly to Orion, including $4,700 from some of Amazon's top executives like Andrew Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services and David Zapolsky, a senior vice president and general counsel to the company. But Laskin said that “at the end of the day, he’s not beholden to Amazon, he’s beholden to his constituents.”

Seattle runs non-partisan elections, which means party isn’t listed on the ballot. But Orion is a Democrat and LGBTQ community leader, winning the endorsements of several trade unions. Sawant, despite being a socialist, has the endorsement of the 43rd Legislative District Democrats, which she said is the first time that group’s city council endorsement has not gone to a Democrat.

Amazon has gotten pushback for their involvement in the city council races, garnering criticism from Democratic presidential primary candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who both criticized the tech giant for their spending. “Surprise: Amazon is trying to tilt the Seattle City Council elections in their favor. I'm with the Seattle council members and activists who continue standing up to Amazon,” Warren tweeted last week. “Amazon is dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people. The way Amazon conducts itself in its hometown is a perfect example of the out-of-control corporate greed we are going to end,” Sanders tweeted this week.

But Markham McIntyre, executive director of CASE, said in an emailed statement that Amazon and CASE just want a functional Seattle City Council “The money CASE has raised is from local companies who care about the future of this city,” he said. “The status quo isn’t working: we have a dysfunctional, toxic environment at City Council and employers, including our city’s largest private employer, want a return to good government.”

Amazon’s financial interest in the Seattle city council elections is a relatively recent phenomenon. Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, told the Seattle Times that the company’s investment is the largest amount spent by a single organization “in anyone’s memory.” The first time Amazon and its executives spent money on a Seattle city council race was in 1997, and the donation totalled $250. Spending only got serious in 2015, when they donated over $136,000. Now, PAC donations and personal donations of Amazon executives tops $1.6 million.

Local politics began to hit particularly close to home for Amazon in 2018, when the city council passed—and then repealed—its so-called “head tax.” The measure would have taxed companies grossing more than $20 million in revenue to pay $275 per employee into a fund for initiatives to reduce homelessness in the city. City officials, who pointed to Seattle’s affordable housing crisis as a big part of homelessness in the city, estimated that the fund would generate $50 million per year from 585 businesses.

The largest company affected by the change would have been Amazon, which has roughly 45,000 employees in Seattle and plans to expand that number in coming years. If implemented, the company would have owed about $12.4 million annually, or .005% of their $232 billion worth of revenue in 2018.

At the time, Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener said in a statement that the city didn’t need the money. "The city does not have a revenue problem—it has a spending efficiency problem,” he said. “We are highly uncertain whether the city council’s anti-business positions or its spending inefficiency will change for the better."

Laskin said that Orion isn’t opposed “to the notion of a head tax” but rather opposed to the way the city planned for the money it would raise through the tax. “Big businesses need to be doing more to pay into solutions for the homelessness crisis,” she said. “But he thought it was a poorly planned piece of policy. If we’re going to do a head tax, he wants a clear plan for how that money will be used.”

Sawant spearheaded efforts to pass the head tax, and was one of two councilmembers who voted against its repeal. She said that the head tax was “modest,” and that Amazon’s opposition proves the company isn’t willing to make concessions at the negotiating table. “The head tax repeal shows that it’s a pipe dream to win progressive victories by building a consensus with big business,” she said in a recent interview. “I’d be happy if we could. But the reason they fought so hard is because they are loathe to pay anything with taxes.”

Amazon paid no federal income tax in 2018, and actually received a tax rebate of $129 million from the federal government, making its effective tax rate -1.2%. President Trump critiqued the company’s tax contributions in a tweet from March 2018, where he noted that “unlike [other companies], they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments.” Amazon paid $250 million in state and local taxes in Washington in 2017.

Amazon has framed their involvement in the city council race not around taxes, though, but as being about pragmatism. Amazon spokesperson Aaron Toso said in a statement that the company believes "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."

Laskin echoed that sentiment, saying that the council needs to be less about politics, more about solutions. “Right now there is such a divisive air of politics in Seattle. Businesses need workers and workers need business. Both sides need to create collective solutions,” she said. “A councilmember constantly demonizing businesses will only get pushback.”

Sawant framed her stance against Amazon not as demonization, but as the work of a “progressive fighter” who has to maintain strong principles. “The business elite understand what’s at stake. Because it’s not just Seattle. If we can make changes, other cities can, too,” she said. “That’s the reason they’ll fight tooth and nail against moderate policy proposals. That’s the reason I’m in the crosshairs.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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