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Supporters of the head tax rush the City Council chambers during a vote to repeal the controversial legislation. Behind the banner, Councilmember Kshama Sawant calls for order. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon is dramatically increasing its financial commitment to reshape politics in its hometown, in a move that signals a big shift for the tech giant.

Amazon is spending an additional $1.05 million on an effort to elect a new Seattle City Council, the company confirmed Tuesday. That brings the total funding Amazon has put into the race to $1.45 million.

Amazon donated the funds to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, The Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE). The company donated $400,000 to CASE earlier this year and $50,000 in September 2018. CASE has made endorsements for each of the City Council positions, selecting candidates seen as more business-friendly than their opponents. Just one endorsement is for an incumbent; the rest of CASE’s picks would be new faces on the council.

The contribution announced today more than doubles Amazon’s commitment and makes it the top spender on Seattle elections this year by far. It’s a sign that local politics can have a big impact on this global corporation and an example of Amazon’s newfound appetite for civic engagement at all levels of government.

“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” said Amazon spokesperson 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.”

Though it’s unusual for Amazon to spend so much on local races, the upcoming Seattle City Council elections have big implications for the region. Seven of the nine City Council positions up for grabs. To Amazon, that represents an opportunity to largely unseat a council it has accused of being “hostile” and taking “anti-business positions.”

Top contributors to Seattle elections. (Chart via CASE)

Amazon has grown to about 50,000 employees in Seattle over the past decade, a boom that has dramatically impacted the region. Some councilmembers blame the company for the challenges Seattle faces, like a housing crisis driven by low supply and thousands of newcomers with the lucrative tech salaries to bid up the market.

Tensions boiled over last year when the City Council passed a “head tax” on Seattle’s top-grossing businesses to pay for affordable housing. Amazon threatened to slow its growth in the city if the tax went through. City Councilmember Kshama Sawant led marches across the tech giant’s campus with activists carrying signs that read “Tax Amazon.”

Protestors carried signs that read ‘Tax Amazon’ on the company’s campus during the 2017 ‘head tax’ fight. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Despite Amazon’s opposition, the City Council unanimously passed the so-called “head tax.”

“We are disappointed by today’s City Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs … we remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here,” said Amazon Vice President Drew Herdener, at the time.

Amazon and other businesses donated thousands to a campaign fighting the tax, leading the Council to ultimately repeal it less than a month after it passed.

The short-lived tax and debate surrounding it became emblematic of a larger schism between the progressive Seattle City Council and business community in the region. Companies like Amazon see the upcoming election as an opportunity to change the direction of Seattle’s governance.

CASE director Markham McIntyre didn’t mince words in a statement provided to GeekWire:

CASE and the business community want what the voters want: a functional Seattle City Council that gets back to the basics and effectively addresses challenges like traffic, affordability, and homelessness. The money CASE has raised is from local companies who care about the future of this city. 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.

Update: A political action committee that cropped up this year in response to CASE’s focus on the City Council races criticized Amazon’s latest donation. The pointedly named Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy says its mission is to “combat the unlimited corporate dollars flooding into local campaigns.” CAPE Director Rachel Lauter provided this statement:

One of the richest corporations in the world just invested an unprecedented amount of money to attempt a hostile takeover of Seattle’s local government. Amazon knows it can’t win by fighting Seattle’s record of helping working families with a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, and secure scheduling, especially since it just cut health coverage promised to all of its Seattle grocery workers, and paid $0.00 in federal income tax last year. Now a huge corporation is funneling exorbitant amounts of money to the Chamber of Commerce to buy our democracy. This isn’t just about Seattle, it’s about the 2020 national elections. Amazon is warning presidential candidates who say they share Seattle’s values that it will stop at nothing to protect its power and profits.

Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González is pushing legislation that would prohibit large political contributions like the one Amazon just made.

She proposed legislation that would ban donations of more than $5,000 to independent expenditure political action committees in Seattle, challenging an interpretation of the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court case.

“My proposed legislation would send a clear message to those who seek to buy our democracy that our local democratic process is not for sale to the highest bidder,” González said in a statement.

In addition to the CASE donation, Amazon is contributing $450,000 to the No on I-976 campaign. The ballot initiative would limit car licensing fees, dramatically cutting funding for transportation initiatives in the Seattle region.

Amazon’s foray into politics extends beyond local issues. Amazon’s federal lobbying budget has ballooned to record heights and the company is making a habit of calling out prominent politicians on Twitter. The company is currently competing with Microsoft for a $10 billion project to build the Pentagon’s cloud infrastructure, which would make it one of the nation’s top defense contractors. Not to mention the year Amazon spent negotiating with city officials as it sought a location for its second headquarters.

It’s a dramatic departure from the first two decades of Amazon’s life when the company was notoriously private, focusing on customers and growing the business and largely abstaining from civic life.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that seven of the nine City Council positions up for grabs.

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