Amazon’s $1.5 million could not defeat Indian-American socialist from winning Seattle City Council race

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks in front of the Amazon Spheres during a protest to demand that the city of Seattle tax the largest corporations to help fund affordable housing, according to organizers, in Seattle, Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

Kshama Sawant (an Indian-American) has long been at odds with big business. In her six years on Seattle’s City Council as its first socialist elected in nearly a century, she has backed a tax on large companies and pushed successfully to make Seattle the first major city with a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

But Sawant’s campaign for reelection this year pitted her against Amazon, Seattle’s largest private employer, more conspicuously than ever. The retail giant has put $1.5 million toward City Council races this cycle, via a business-interest group that spent nearly half a million dollars in support of Sawant’s opponent – a massive expansion of the company’s efforts to shape politics on its home turf.

Sawant’s faceoff with big tech was on full display over the weekend (Nov. 9-10, 2019) as she declared victory from a podium in front of a bright orange banner with the words “TAX Amazon” in giant print.

“Working people in our city have stood up and said, ‘Seattle is not for sale,’ ” she said Saturday (Nov. 9, 2019). The crowd cheered.

Sawant’s win in a tight race looks to many like a repudiation of Amazon’s money – and an expression of frustration with big companies often blamed for rising inequality. Some say Amazon’s money backfired in the council race as people leery of corporate money supported Sawant’s cause and as her campaign drew national attention from the likes of Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both Democratic presidential candidates.

That entry into a bigger conversation about politics and wealth feels fitting, said Seattle-based historian Margaret O’Mara, in a place that has become a bellwether for big-city anxieties around gentrification, homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. O’Mara considers Sawant part of a wave of liberal politicians who want significant changes and aren’t worried about accumulating enemies.

“She was not here to make friends,” O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington, said of Sawant’s time in office. “She was here to really build a movement.”

Sawant, too, frames her close race – she pulled ahead late last week – as sending a message with national resonance, about a “bold, left-leaning and in fact socialist” campaign’s ability to prevail against business interests.

“This election was a test lab,” she told The Washington Post on Sunday (Nov. 10, 2019), as a count of almost all ballots showed her with nearly 52 percent of the vote.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. (Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Sawant, a former software engineer first elected to the City Council in 2013, agrees that Amazon’s spending helped rally people behind her, but she pushes back on the idea that it propelled her to victory. She thinks her agenda – pitched via more than 200,000 door-knocks, she says – has always held appeal in a city fed up with rising inequality.

Her top priorities heading into another term include rent-control measures and increasing taxes on the wealthy and big companies.

O’Mara argued, though, that Amazon’s decision to throw its vast resources behind Sawant’s opponent – Egan Orion, who directs a local gay pride festival – helped the council member build her case weeks before the election that would decide seven of nine council seats.

“All of sudden, it gave this very potent talking point: Amazon does not want me in office,” O’Mara said.

Two council members not on the ballot this year endorsed their socialist colleague after Amazon’s massive donation in October to a pro-business PAC of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Times reported. Warren and Sanders, who have both vowed to fight powerful corporate interests, quickly weighed in, too.

“Surprise: Amazon is trying to tilt the Seattle City Council elections in their favor,” Warren said Oct. 19. Several days later, Sanders – who tweeted triumphantly this weekend that Amazon and Bezos “should have kept their money” – said the company was “dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people.”

Even Orion, the Amazon-backed candidate, sought to distance himself, calling the company’s contributions “completely unnecessary” and “a big distraction,” the Associated Press reported. Orion said he wanted to win without “the shadow of Amazon hanging over me.”

Orion did not respond to a request for comment.

Amazon told the Seattle Times that it wanted the city to have “a government that works.”

“Seattle deserves a council that delivers results for all of its residents on issues that matter, like homelessness, transportation, climate change and public safety,” a spokesman said.

A leader of Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the PAC that opposed Sawant, cited many of the same issues in a statement to The Post on Sunday, emphasizing a desire to work with officials and not commenting directly on Sawant’s win or her plans.

“The business community stands ready to work with the new Seattle City Council – just as we have partnered with elected leaders to support a regional approach to homelessness, to advocate for more transit, and to add resources for affordable housing,” said Markham McIntyre, CASE’s executive director.

“How our local government chooses to partner – or create division – matters,” he said.

As Sawant enters her new term, she’ll be pushing anew for one of the measures that put her most sharply in conflict with the business community: a “head tax” on large companies of $275 per employee per year. She championed the measure when it passed unanimously in 2018 to fund housing and homelessness initiatives; when the City Council repealed it a month later amid companies’ outcry, she cast one of two votes in opposition.

Council members backtracked on the tax, expected to cost Amazon about $10 million a year, as the retail company said it would reevaluate its plans for new buildings in the area where it employs about 50,000 people. With 7,000 prospective jobs suddenly uncertain, Sawant faced concern that her favored policies would jeopardize the city’s economic growth, according to the Los Angeles Times. Iron workers in hard hats flocked to one of her rallies with shouts of “No head tax!” the Times reported.

Sawant said Sunday, though, that she thinks her corporate foes’ employees are receptive to her talking points. Tech workers are well represented among her donors, she said.

Justin Marlowe, a professor at the University of Washington who researches local tax policy, said the head tax is what led Amazon to put record sums into this year’s council elections. The company gave far less to candidates in 2015: $130,000, according to the Times.

He said he thinks a new version of the tax will probably pass the newly elected council, perhaps with more input from the company that helped scrap it. Amid some people’s frustrations that Seattle’s public spending has struggled to dent problems like homelessness, Amazon may focus on details of the tax and how its revenue will be used, Marlowe said.

“Amazon will come to the table and be willing to work with the City Council in a way that they have not in the past,” he said.



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