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

The tech industry is taking an unprecedented interest in Seattle’s upcoming election, spending big and turning the national spotlight on local politics.

Amazon’s headline-grabbing $1 million contribution last month is the most visible symbol of tech’s involvement in the election — but it’s hardly the only one. Tech leaders and business advocacy groups are throwing considerable financial weight behind candidates and initiatives that they hope will change the direction of Seattle’s government.

Tech executives and rank-and-file workers have dramatically stepped up their donations to local campaigns. Microsoft employees are spending double what they did in the 2015 election. For Amazon employees — including high-level executives — the political spending is over eight times higher than it was in 2015. Tech donors have spent more than $1 million on ballot initiative campaigns, and tech trade groups are becoming more vocal in local politics.

This effort by the tech industry to assert its influence in Seattle is attracting attention from some of the biggest names in national politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders took the unusual step of endorsing candidates for Seattle City Council in a rebuff of Amazon.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have also been vocal critics of tech spending in Seattle’s election. On a call with reporters Friday, Jayapal said she is fielding questions about Amazon’s election spending “not just in Seattle but across the country.”

“Fundamentally, we’re at the forefront of our nation in rewriting the rules of our economy so that they work for working people and the poor …this most recent influx of money from Amazon is callously disrespectful to the residents of our city,” Jayapal said.

Their interest isn’t incidental. The Seattle City Council has been a first-mover on many of the progressive policies those politicians want to see rolled out nationwide, like the $15 minimum wage and comprehensive labor standards.

Campaign finance disclosures reveal which candidates and campaigns are benefiting from the influx of tech money ahead of the Nov. 5 election. It’s a battle for Seattle’s identity in a city that is both a test lab for progressive policies and an innovation hub that has produced some of the wealthiest companies and entrepreneurs in the world. As Big Tech flexes its muscle in a city famous for pushing some of the most progressive policies in the nation, Seattle’s election underscores the broader tensions between the new left and corporate America.

Amazon’s big move

Amazon is the top source of tech money flowing into the election. The tech giant gave a record $1 million to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) on Oct. 15. The fresh cash brought Amazon’s total donations to CASE to $1.45 million this election cycle.

CASE is endorsing new candidates for six of the seven Seattle City Council seats that are up for grabs and one incumbent. CASE’s leadership says it selected candidates that are more prudent and less ideological than the sitting City Council.

A 2018 Seattle City Council hearing on a short-lived big business tax. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is of particular concern to Amazon and the tech industry. A member of the Socialist Alternative party, Sawant is a frequent critic of Amazon. Last year, she branded a short-lived tax on Seattle’s big businesses as the “Amazon Tax” and she has hosted several rallies at Amazon’s headquarters protesting the company’s impact on the city. CASE is spending more money in support of Sawant’s opponent, Egan Orion, than any other candidate, according to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission records.

CASE has spent more than $443,000 on mailers, canvassing, and advertising in support of Orion. Several of Amazon’s top executives have also contributed to Orion’s campaign.

Orion and other candidates who won CASE’s endorsements have sought to distance themselves from Amazon’s donation, which has become a lightning rod in Seattle politics. Orion issued this statement the day Amazon announced its 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. 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.”

Asked about the tech donations this week, City Council candidate Alex Pedersen echoed Orion:

“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. I’m not accepting any money directly from any PAC or real estate developer — I’m accountable only to the constituents of District 4.”

Heidi Wills’ campaign to represent District 6 on the Seattle City Council has also earned the support of CASE and Amazon execs. CASE spent more than $431,000 in independent expenditures supporting Wills.

Other beneficiaries of CASE’s deep pockets include City Council candidates Jim Pugel, Phil Tavel, Mark Solomon, Debora Juarez, and Pedersen. The Washington Technology Industry Association’s political action committee also made small donations to the campaigns of Tavel, Juarez, Pugel, and Soloman.

“My district is home to thousands of workers and dozens of tech industry employers — from small startups to some of the largest tech names in the world,” said Pugel in a statement. “I’m proud of all the support I’ve earned in this campaign, from grassroots democracy vouchers to the financial support of seniors, ex-cops like myself, small business owners, and tech workers.”

Tavel also noted that his campaign is funded by Seattle’s novel Democracy Voucher program and said, “CASE is an independent expenditure that is separate from my campaign” in a statement.

Tech workers tune in

Top Amazon executives — including Jeff Wilke, Jay Carney, Andy Jassy, Brian Huseman, Brian Olsavsky, John Schoettler, David Zapolsky, and others — donated sums ranging from $250 to $500 apiece to several City Council candidates backed by CASE. Orion, Wills, Tavel, Juarez, and Lewis received donations from one or more of those Amazon executives, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.

Amazon execs also wrote big checks to People for Seattle, a separate political action committee helmed by startup investor Tom Alberg, former City Councilmember Tim Burgess, and others. The committee’s endorsements and rhetoric largely overlap with CASE’s. Like CASE, People for Seattle is calling for pragmatism and a return to basic governance. The PAC raised a total of $52,300 from Amazon employees including $10,000 each from Zapolsky and Jassy.

Rank-and-file tech workers are spending far more on this election than they have in the past too. More than 300 Amazon employees donated a total of about $143,000 to Seattle candidates and political action committees this election cycle, as of Nov. 1. In the 2015 election, about 70 Amazon employees contributed a total of about $17,000.

Contributions from employees at Microsoft, which is based outside Seattle in Redmond, Wash., were more modest. They totaled about $40,000 from approximately 200 employees. That’s about double what Microsoft employees spent in the 2015 election.

Workers at Facebook, which employs more than 5,000 people in Seattle, donated about $10,000. Google employees contributed roughly the same amount.

Beyond the City Council

Amazon’s last-minute contributions have critics laser-focused on tech’s influence in local politics. Several candidates and members of the Seattle City Council held a demonstration at the company’s headquarters last week to protest corporate money in politics. Councilmember Lorena González has introduced legislation that would cap donations to political action committees in Seattle at $5,000, challenging an interpretation of the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court case.

But there’s been far less scrutiny of the thousands of dollars that the tech industry is spending on other issues that will appear on the November ballot.

Tech donors have spent more than $1.4 million on a campaign to defeat Initiative 976, a proposal to cap car registration fees in Washington state that would slash funding for transit projects. Microsoft contributed $650,000 to defeat the initiative and Amazon donated $400,000. Vulcan, Expedia, Lyft, T-Mobile, entrepreneur Rich Barton, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, and other tech leaders kicked in thousands as well. The tech industry is united with progressives, the current City Council, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in the effort to defeat I-976.

Seattle City Council candidate Tammy Morales attends a protest at Amazon HQ. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Tammy Morales, a candidate running in District 2, explained why criticism of tech spending has been focused more narrowly on the City Council races in an interview with GeekWire last week.

“The difference is that those were to support the public or public infrastructure, to serve our neighbors, to serve our communities and help workers get around the region better,” she said. “This is a cynical attempt to buy our democracy.”

Amazon’s political awakening

Amazon’s big donation does represent a shift in the company’s political culture. For 20 years, Amazon has focused on its customers and products, without spending much money or time on civic engagement. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos often said the company was willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.

That has shifted in the past few years. As Amazon grew to more than 50,000 employees in Seattle, it no longer became tenable for the company to keep its head down and fly below the radar.

“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” said Amazon spokesperson Aaron Toso in a statement earlier this month. “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.”

Seattle’s tech boom has contributed to runaway housing prices and a confounding homelessness crisis. In 2018, the Seattle City Council sought to mitigate those issues by taxing the city’s top-grossing businesses on a per-employee basis. In one of Amazon’s first big political statements, the company threatened to slow its growth in Seattle because of city leaders’ “hostile” attitude toward big businesses. The tax was ultimately repealed.

The tax dispute has lasting repercussions. It coincided with Amazon’s second headquarters search and became a rallying cry for New York City leaders who were wary of the HQ2 project. Two Seattle City Councilmembers traveled to New York to warn officials about what it’s like to have Amazon as a neighbor. Amazon pulled out of its New York HQ2 plan shortly thereafter.

New York Sen. Michael Gianaris speaks with Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold at a hearing on Amazon. (Photo via the Office of Senator Michael Gianaris)

In the wake of Amazon’s Seattle tax battle, the company has stepped up its civic engagement at every level of government. There was a time when Amazon largely ignored criticism from politicians but in recent years the company has made a habit of clapping back on Twitter and in public comments.

Amazon’s lobbying budget and public policy teams have grown too — and next month Zapolsky is co-hosting a fundraiser for Vice President Joe Biden, according to The Seattle Times.

Seattle’s broader tech industry is also becoming more involved in civic life. Microsoft, which is based just outside Seattle, launched a $500 million initiative to spur more affordable housing development in the region earlier this year. The Washington Technology Industry Association endorsed candidates in the Seattle City Council election for the first time in its history. Amazon, Zillow, and other tech companies formed a new volunteer organization called Sea.Citi to encourage their employees to get more involved in community issues. And a grassroots organization, Tech 4 Housing, cropped up last year to bring tech workers together to advocate for housing policy reform.

The trend isn’t Seattle-specific; tech is getting more involved in the Bay Area too. In both regions, the industry’s growing civic engagement is raising big questions about the identity of affluent West Coast tech hubs. As Morales told a crowd of protesters in front of Amazon’s headquarters last week, “The country is watching what happens in Seattle.”

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