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Councilmember Kshama Sawant holds a press conference at City Hall in 2017 during a debate over a new tax on big business. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon’s $1 million political contribution announced Tuesday — on top of $450,000 the company previously spent on elections in its hometown — struck a nerve with Seattle progressives worried about the impact of a booming tech industry on their city.

Left-leaning activists lambasted the contributions, which Amazon donated to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy. CASE is backing business-friendly candidates in the Seattle City Council races next month. With seven seats up for grabs, the election could reshape the city’s governance — and Amazon is putting big money behind CASE’s picks.

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

The donation ignited a sharp backlash among politicians and activists in Seattle but some share Amazon’s desire for a change in leadership. The different perspectives are emblematic of the battle for Seattle’s identity that has been playing out for months. In one camp are self-styled pragmatists who want to create an environment that’s friendly to business. Farther to the left is the camp calling for more progressive policies on a range of issues from climate change to workers’ rights. As a new wave of progressivism sweeps the country, it’s worth watching what happens in Seattle.

Opponents of CASE’s candidates are using Amazon’s donation as a rallying cry to raise money from their supporters. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a frequent foe of Amazon, emailed her supporters with an urgent message Wednesday. “We need to fight back by raising $20,000 by this Friday, when ballots arrive,” Sawant said. She called Amazon’s donation “a flagrant attempt to blow up Seattle’s democratic process.”

 

Sawant is the incumbent running for City Council in District 3. Her opponent, Egan Orion received CASE’s endorsement. But even candidates that stand to gain from Amazon’s money raised concerns about the size of the donation.

“The influx of PAC money in City politics this year is completely out of scale with the grassroots campaign myself and many others are trying to run, and is proving to be a distraction from the real issues,” Orion said in a statement. “A lot of this spending is clearly driven by a frustration felt across the city — from seniors and young renters to unions and businesses large and small, that we need change on the City Council. If elected, I will absolutely pursue policies to limit outside spending and bring balance to our civic elections.”

City Council candidate Shaun Scott used the donation as an opportunity to recruit volunteers to canvass for his campaign.

His opponent, Alex Pedersen, said he would not take money from political action committees despite being endorsed by CASE.

“The big money from PACs is absolutely NOT needed or welcome because doorbelling, professional experience, and a focus on results are what really matters to voters, instead of excessive ads or negative attacks,” Pedersen said in a message.

Several city leaders are gathering for a press conference at Amazon’s headquarters Thursday to protest corporate money in politics. Sawant and fellow City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Lorena Gonzalez plan to speak. Other speakers will be announced Wednesday.

Other politicians, like former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, questioned Amazon’s motives following news of the contribution.

Some members of Seattle’s civic community are worried that the donation and backlash to it are sowing division unnecessarily. Bill Schrier is a longtime civil servant who served as chief technology officer for the city and chief information officer for the Seattle Police Department. He declined to comment on Amazon’s donation specifically but said, “I believe we do have people who want to divide us in Seattle.”

“We need to elect officials who will support our law enforcement agencies – specifically the Seattle Police Department – while at the same time supporting innovative solutions to helping our many people living on the streets or undergoing crises in their lives such as mental health and drug addiction,” Schrier said. “Not every elected official has supported law enforcement and innovative solutions. These solutions can often be designed and supported by our high-tech companies and employees, if we ask them to do so, rather than artificially try to separate them from the health and safety of our robust neighborhoods and their leaders.”

CASE director Markham McIntyre said that its PAC has raised money “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,” she said in a statement.

A political action committee that cropped up this year in response to CASE’s focus on the City Council races criticized the donation. The organization is pointedly named the Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy. Its director, Rachel Lauter, called Amazon’s spending an attempted “hostile takeover of Seattle’s local government.”

“A huge corporation is funneling exorbitant amounts of money to the Chamber of Commerce to buy our democracy,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Amazon employs about 50,000 people in the Seattle area of different political affiliations and levels of civic engagement. But some Amazon employees are speaking up in criticism of the political spending.

Amazon has been at odds with the current Seattle City Council since 2017, when the company fought a short-lived tax on the top-grossing businesses in the city that would have funded affordable housing and homeless services.

The business community criticized the legislation as a “tax on jobs” and Amazon said it was forced to reconsider its growth in a city that is “hostile” toward big businesses.

Ultimately, the City Council repealed the tax a few weeks after passing it, claiming they could not win a months-long battle with opponents. A new Crosscut/Elway poll shows 56 percent of Seattle voters still support the idea of a tax on big businesses to pay for affordable housing.

Amazon and others who are unhappy with the current City Council have the chance to upend it on Nov. 5 because seven of the nine seats are up for grabs.

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