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Amazon, Reluctant Player No More, Plunges Into Seattle Election

Noah Buhayar and Matt Day

(Bloomberg) -- A day after Amazon.com Inc. disclosed one of the largest campaign contributions in a Seattle election, protesters gathered outside the company’s headquarters.

Under a pair of tents set up to deflect a persistent drizzle, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien said Amazon’s $1.05 million contribution to a business-backed political-action committee was “potentially devastating to our democracy.” Matt Smith, an Amazon package handler, asked employees to join him in a rally rejecting the move.

And Kshama Sawant, a councilmember who has made criticism of Amazon a staple of her re-election campaign, led the couple dozen politicians, staffers and supporters in a call-and-response.

“When billionaires are on the attack, what do we do,” she shouted.

“Stand up, fight back!”

At the fringes of the audience, Amazon lobbyist Guy Palumbo said, “Lose.”

As Seattle barrels toward its Nov. 5 council election, residents are sharply divided over how to address the challenges facing the city after years of torrid growth. On one side are candidates like Sawant, the socialist incumbent, who say big businesses like Amazon need to be taxed to fund a frayed social-safety net. On the other are people like her opponent, Egan Orion, who have won over companies and voters by pledging to take a more pragmatic approach to the city’s challenges.

Amazon has intensified the debate by wading into the election like never before. The company was generally a reluctant player in city politics, even as it grew to occupy dozens of buildings and employ more than 50,000 people in its hometown.

@amazon dumps record $$ into @SeattleCouncil races local #democrats speak out against what they call big corporations/wealthy efforts to buy election, @CMLGonzalez says these corporate donors are anti tax, anti poor “says Seattle City Council not for sale” #973FM @KIRORadio pic.twitter.com/ZUteRnUh3a

— Hanna Scott (@HannaKIROFM) October 17, 2019

But during this election cycle it has plowed a total of $1.5 million into the local chamber of commerce’s political action committee. At least 18 executives personally sent checks to Orion. Wayne Barnett, the executive director of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, said the company’s donation was the largest contribution in a city election that he could remember, eclipsing the $1.39 million the American Chemistry Council spent in 2009 over a tax on disposable shopping bags.

The spending on the local races reflects the potential for a pushback from business as progressive politicians gain prominence nationally. It has also framed the election as a test of whether money from deep-pocketed companies will be effective in the face of a public wary of corporate influence in politics. U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have already criticized Amazon’s spending on the Seattle races as they vie for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“It’s a message nationally that Amazon won’t be pushed around,” said Joni Balter, a longtime Seattle journalist who hosts Civic Cocktail, a city forum for policymakers and community members. But she added that it could backfire on the company. “This is a city of contrarians who don’t like stuff like that.”

Seattle’s business revolt ignited last year as the city considered a tax on large employers to fund homeless services. After the measure passed in May 2018, Amazon helped lead a resistance that ultimately ended in the measure’s repeal a month later. Since then, the company has made several announcements about its intentions to expand in Bellevue, just east of Seattle.

More than a year after that fight, Seattle is still struggling to rein in its homelessness crisis, and voters are getting impatient. In a recent poll, two-thirds of respondents said they were more likely to vote for candidates who want to change the council’s direction. That, along with a wide-open field in many races, unleashed a torrent of spending. Seven of the nine seats on council are up for grabs, and only three incumbents are running.

Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington, a labor group that campaigned for Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, said Amazon’s donation “feels like a coordinated attack on government, generally.”

“They are throwing down,” she said. “The question is what is this for, what do they really want. What the record shows is that they don’t want to pay taxes, they don’t want to see the city address labor standards for gig workers.”

David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, said in an interview that the company is seeking a more pragmatic city government that would be open to input from business leaders, in addition to labor groups and citizens. “It’s important to have a city council where people feel comfortable going to city council without being shouted down or met with open hostility,” he said.

While Amazon is by far the largest contributor to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, several other businesses have given to the political action committee, including Expedia Group Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Vulcan Inc., a major local real estate developer and investment vehicle for the late Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen.

Orion, an organizer of Seattle’s PrideFest, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the chamber’s spending, receiving about $285,000. But, so too, have candidates like police leader Jim Pugel and Heidi Wills, a former council member who was unseated in 2003.

The money has shaped the race at a time when Seattle is pioneering a new model of public campaign finance meant to level the playing field between deep-pocketed donors and average citizens. Registered voters in the city each received $100 worth of “democracy vouchers” that they could give to candidates of their choosing. More than $2.4 million in contributions have been made through the program this year, according to the ethics and election commission.

In a twist, Sawant turned down the vouchers -- and fundraising caps they imposed -- to more effectively fight against business spending. Her campaign had raised almost $453,000, largely from small-dollar donors, as of Oct. 27. Orion’s campaign, meanwhile, has brought in about $394,000, with about a third coming from vouchers.

Amazon’s Zapolsky didn’t comment on the critiques of his company’s spending leveled by national politicians. Of the local races,“it’s not surprising that some candidates are looking to make this an election about Amazon as opposed to an election about the issues that matter to Seattle residents,” he said, calling out topics like homelessness, public safety, climate change and transportation.

“We should all be on the same side of those and looking for solutions,” he said.

Carol Isaac highlighted some of the same issues as she waited for a debate to begin last month between Orion and Sawant at Seattle’s Town Hall. But the retired University of Washington researcher put the blame elsewhere for the city’s challenges.

Her fix?

“You want me to give you the one-liner,” she asked. “Get rid of capitalism.”

--With assistance from Dina Bass.

To contact the reporters on this story: Noah Buhayar in Seattle at nbuhayar@bloomberg.net;Matt Day in Seattle at mday63@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, ;Craig Giammona at cgiammona@bloomberg.net, Robin Ajello, Andrew Pollack

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