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Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant in her office at City Hall. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“Seattle was like a test lab. If we allowed them to get away with it here, then we can be sure they’re going to go after other cities as well.”

So said Seattle’s socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, speaking about Amazon’s unprecedented political donations in an interview with GeekWire on Tuesday afternoon, just a few days after winning re-election despite a massive financial push by the tech giant to unseat her.

It’s true that Amazon has used its hometown as a testing ground for many of its boldest ideas. The cashier-less grocery store, Amazon Go, was born in Seattle. So was the company’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore. Seattle customers were the first to experience drive-up grocery service at AmazonFresh Pickup. But not all of the company’s Seattle experiments have been successful. Amazon’s $1.45 million effort to elect a more business-friendly Seattle City Council did not net the desired results.

We sat down with Sawant this week to discuss the dramatic election, the national attention it drew, her agenda next year, and how Seattle fits into her broader vision for a more progressive America. The conversation showed that it’s not just Amazon who views Seattle as a test lab. By bringing big tech companies like Amazon to heel, Sawant wants to make Seattle a model of progressivism for the rest of the nation.

Sawant is one of five candidates who ran against Amazon’s picks and won, resulting in a legislative body that could be even more progressive than the previous one. Sawant’s victory was also symbolic. She is a frequent thorn in Amazon’s side, dubbing a controversial piece of legislation the “Amazon Tax” and regularly hosting protests at the company’s headquarters. Amazon spent more money in support of her opponent than any other candidate.

“It’s a resounding referendum on the direction of the city,” she said. “Should the city be a playground for the very wealthy and a corporate tax haven for big corporations? Or should it be a city that actually is affordable for ordinary people and a city where a social justice perspective is being put forward by the highest legislative body?”

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

A vision for Seattle

Reviving Seattle’s short-lived head tax is at the top of Sawant’s agenda. Last year, Sawant and some of her colleagues spearheaded legislation that would have taxed Seattle’s top-grossing businesses on a per-employee basis to fund services and housing for the homeless. With more than 50,000 Seattle employees, Amazon would have been the top source of revenue.

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

In its first big display of political hardball in its hometown, Amazon paused construction on one of its office towers and said it was reconsidering moving into another because of the City Council’s “hostile” attitude toward big business. The council passed the head tax, then repealed it a few weeks later to avoid a lengthy fight over a ballot referendum that would have put the issue to the voters. Amazon continued construction on the paused tower but never moved into the second one, choosing instead to sublease it to other tenants. Meanwhile, Amazon has been doubling down on growth in Bellevue, Wash., the next city over from Seattle.

Despite that bitter battle, Sawant is determined to resurrect the head tax next year. She said she isn’t ruling out any progressive tax measure that would raise revenue from big businesses and the wealthy to deal with Seattle’s affordable housing crisis.

“The priorities absolutely have to be to tax big business and the wealthy … there is overwhelming support among Seattleites for a tax on large corporations to fund vital services and affordable housing,” Sawant said.

Not all of Sawant’s colleagues on the City Council are ready to revive the fight. Council member Lisa Herbold told Crosscut this week that a ballot initiative might make more sense.

Sawant is open to a head tax ballot initiative but she doesn’t think “it should be punted to the voters.”

“Politicians have a duty to be accountable to ordinary people and ordinary people have spoken,” she said. “We have a responsibility.”

The City Council’s options for taxing the elite are somewhat limited by Washington state law. That’s why Sawant is determined to bring back the head tax.

“If you look at the ability to tax big business, that is extremely stymied,” she said. “I actually don’t know of very many other options.”

Until recently, Washington cities were banned from taxing net income. The Seattle City Council sought to test that state law by enacting a 2.25 percent income tax on high earners in the city. This summer, a judge struck down the income tax ban on cities, in a victory for the City Council. However, the judge ruled that the new wealth tax violated a constitutional mandate that all property be taxed uniformly. The issue is now likely headed for the state Supreme Court.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant protests corporate spending in Seattle elections at Amazon’s headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Washington’s tax system is often called the most regressive in the country, meaning wealthy residents pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than poor families do. The state is one of only a handful with no income taxes.

Sawant wants to change that system and she’s considering all the available options. She plans to continue testing statewide restrictions with policies like rent control, real estate developer impact fees, and vacancy taxes for property owners who leave rental units empty.

“In my mind, all options for progressive revenues are on the table,” Sawant said, sitting in her City Hall office with a roadmap of her agenda emblazoned on posters behind her. The signature red signs tell a story of their own: “Abolish ICE.” “We Need Rent Control.” “Unionize Amazon.” “Tax Bezos.”

The Seattle model

Since Sawant’s election in 2013, the Seattle City Council has enacted some of the most progressive policies in the nation. Many of the issues Seattle has addressed are talking points in the 2020 Democratic primary debates, as politicians like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren push the discourse farther to the left. Some of the policies those presidential candidates are campaigning on have been in place in Seattle for years.

Seattle became the first major U.S. city to adopt a $15 minimum wage. As noted, the Seattle City Council is fighting for a wealth tax. In 2015, it passed a landmark law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, though that legislation is jammed up in courts. Seattle has also adopted domestic worker rights, guaranteed paid leave, and other progressive policies.

“Every progressive policy that we have won, we have won despite the opposition, and often vicious opposition, of big business,” Sawant said.

But Amazon and the Seattle City Council are not at odds on every issue. In 2018, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all employees across the country. The company is opening a homeless shelter at its Seattle headquarters and has stepped up philanthropic giving in recent years.

Despite those shifts, Sawant is determined to play hardball with Amazon. Asked whether she could partner with the business community, she referred back to Amazon’s position on the head tax and political spending three weeks before the November election.

“Look at what just happened,” she said. “Amazon and big business went to war against a tax that would have been like pocket change for the billionaires and on top of that, then they went to war against the democratic process of the city and attempted a hostile takeover.”

Emboldened by her victory despite Amazon’s spending, Sawant wants to make Seattle into a model that other cities can emulate. What’s more, she believes the Seattle City Council races send a message about the presidential election in 2020.

The two elections became explicitly linked when Sanders endorsed Sawant and other candidates running against Amazon’s picks on Twitter.

“Bernie Sanders calling for a vote for myself and other progressives running this year was extremely important because it clarified two things,” Sawant said.

“One, it was a reminder that Amazon may be based in Seattle, headquarters, but it’s a multinational corporation. It’s $1 trillion corporation. It has a global footprint and so it matters what happens in Seattle. Secondly, I think the fact that they weighed in also was a recognition that if we let corporations like Amazon, and billionaires like Bezos, buy the democratic process in one city, as I said during the election, it’s like a test lab.”

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