Seattle is electing a new mayor at a critical moment for the city and the tech community, which is often at odds with civic leaders.
Both Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon are liberals — they wouldn’t have made it this far in a Seattle race if they weren’t — and that can present a challenge for voters seeking to differentiate between the two candidates. But their answers to a question about Amazon’s HQ2 search during Tuesday night’s debate suggests they may take different approaches when it comes to working with the tech industry, which is so often blamed for the challenges Seattle faces.
GeekWire co-presented the debate at Starbucks headquarters with KUOW, KING 5, and Seattle CityClub. After a discussion about protecting Seattle’s small businesses, KUOW’s Ross Reynolds asked the candidates what advice they would give to the 238 cities vying for Amazon’s second corporate headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, Durkan and Moon agreed that Seattle has grown too quickly and Amazon plays a big role in that. But Durkan struck a decidedly more mournful tone about the HQ2 search and Amazon’s impact on its hometown.
They both answered with quips at first: “Go Seahawks,” Durkan said. “Be careful what you wish for,” was Moon’s initial advice. From there, each candidate reflected on Amazon’s impact on the city and what its HQ2 search means. Their thoughts were telling.
“They’ve got a map up on the wall now at Amazon of all the cities that want them, and part of it breaks my heart,” Durkan said. “We’ve got these challenges, there’s no question Seattle has grown too fast.”
Without going into specifics, she said that Seattle needs to address its affordability issues and if it does, “companies will still grow here, want to stay here, want to come here, because Seattle, in my view, still is the coolest city there is.”
Moon agreed that Amazon has grown too fast but said the company “has been a net gain for our city.”
“We have this inventive, innovative culture here that I think is really rare and wonderful,” she said. “But we have not kept up with growth. We have not planned in advance for all the growth that Amazon brought with them. So we need some time to catch up. I would advise other cities to plan the growth in advance, understand what it’s going to cost, and make sure Amazon is going to help pay for it because I’m not sure we did that well enough here.”
That gets to a core conflict playing out in Seattle right now. On one side, Seattleites see skyrocketing housing costs, a homelessness crisis, and unprecedented congestion driven by the record number of newcomers moving to the city. On the other, residents worry policies that are reactionary to those issues will hamper our booming job growth and force employers out of the city. In the center is Amazon and its HQ2 search.
Clearly, Durkan and Moon are trying to walk the line between both sides — and they aren’t the only ones. Several Seattle City Councilmembers signed a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos lamenting the tension that has grown between the city’s government and largest private employer. But some councilmembers were conspicuously absent including Kshama Sawant, who has said that Amazon’s HQ2 search creates a “race to the bottom” by asking for government incentives.
Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley have proposed a per-hour, per-employee tax on the city’s highest-grossing businesses (read: Amazon) to pay for a new program to curb homelessness. That came up during Tuesday’s debate and both candidates agreed the tax, as it is proposed now, could adversely impact small businesses and startups.
“There’s too many times when we’ve passed these things with unintended consequences and they are the types of people, we want keep them in our neighborhoods,” said Durkan. “Our small businesses are the engine of what we are. But this head tax could hit them very hard.”
Startups are a key focus of Durkan’s campaign. She proposes suspending Seattle’s business and operation tax for startups less than three years old, “so they can get that positive cash flow, so they can see if that idea works. They could be the future Frans. They could be the future Microsoft. They could fail but that’s ok too.”
Moon said she supports using a head tax to fund homelessness programs in theory but, “we need to change the math so its just larger businesses of employees above a certain size.”
Durkan certainly has more support from institutions representing the tech industry, like the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Amazon has donated $350,000 over the last few months to a committee called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), sponsored by the chamber, which has contributed $525,000 to a group called People for Jenny Durkan.
Moon’s comments Tuesday suggest she’s interested in bridging the gap between everyday tech workers and the rest of Seattle.
“So many folks moved here at the same time over the past five years, and I think there’s been an exclusion and a distance between the tech workers and other folks who’ve been here longer,” she said. “So I’ve really spent a lot of time reaching out to tech workers and really understanding how much they want to be integrated in the city, what would it take for them to feel more welcome, like they belong here. Because I feel like we need to be building this city for the future.”
Watch the full debate below and cast your ballot by Nov. 7 if you’re voting in Seattle.