Seattle Voters Deliver Message to Amazon

Amazon can deliver many things, but city councils don’t seem to be one of them. At least not yet.

That was the upshot of the Seattle city council election just concluded. Amazon contributed $1.5 million to a Super PAC run by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in a bid to elect a slate of candidates that would vote Amazon’s way on certain issues — like voting against a tax on the tech giant to finance more affordable housing and take care of the city’s homeless population.

But the November 5 vote did not go Amazon’s way. Seattle voters were evidently offended by the company’s heavy-handed attempt to control local politics, and instead of voting for Amazon’s slate, re-elected Kshama Sawant, who has spearheaded the drive to tax Amazon, along with others who will carry on the fight for taxing the rich.

The message that money can’t buy elections is always a salutary one, always welcome in a political culture in which ever-larger sums are being invested, from the national to the local level. “Seattle voters are delivering an unmistakable message to giant corporations near and far: Our democracy is not for sale to the highest bidder,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington, told the Seattle Times.

For driving home that message Seattle deserves credit. A triumph of democracy over monied interests. The citizenry demonstrated that they are not so easily manipulated by political advertising and promotion, that they can think for themselves and act in their own interest.

But while credit is due, it should not be exaggerated. Amazon wasn’t the only one spending big on the campaign.

For example, the labor unions, who invested over $1 million backing “progressive” candidates. No one was heard complaining that the unions bought the election, or manipulated voters’ minds with nonstop ads touting the merits of Sawant, a self-described socialist, whose “answer to everything is, ‘Tax business and let the government do it,’” as Markham McIntyre, of the chamber’s PAC, told the Seattle Times. “Apparently that resonated with a lot of voters,” she added.

Sawant’s message resonated with some folks outside Seattle too. In the runup to the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections … Show Amazon that they can’t buy our democracy and that their corporate greed won’t stand. Get out and vote!” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted last month, “Amazon is trying to tilt the City Council elections in their favor.”

The victory of the “Tax Amazon” contingent was thus widely reported as a victory for the Democratic left across the country.

In blunt, local political terms, however, not that much has changed. After a very close election, the political balance on the city council (at least insofar as Amazon is concerned) remained much the same. In a sense, the “victory” was a negative one, in that Amazon failed to shift it decisively over to its side.

Nor should we accept at face value the left’s rendering of the election as the people versus the fat-cat capitalists. It’s hard to resist the rhetoric of class warfare when CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, sits at the head of the opposition. But the reality in Seattle is far more complicated.

It wasn’t only the rich who wanted a change in the liberal city council. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbents,

“We have members who have people dying of overdoses in their restrooms,” said John Engber, a spokesman for the Retail Industry Coalition of Seattle. The city is host to the country’s third biggest homeless population, which has only worsened despite expenditures of nearly $100 million a year to cope with it.

“The council and the mayor declared a state of emergency four to five years ago, and we’ve not moved the dial,” said Laura McMahon, co-founder of Moms for Seattle, “in fact, things have gotten worse.”

So Amazon’s statement before the vote that it wanted a city council “focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety,” was not so easily dismissed as public relations. Seattle really is in dire need of pragmatic solutions.

And Amazon rejects the argument that it bears a special responsibility to pay for affordable housing, since it drove real estate prices out of the ordinary person’s reach.

In the eyes of its critics, Amazon’s good corporate neighbor policy — which included donating 60,000 square feet of its downtown real estate to a shelter for homeless families — was considered insufficient to atone for its heavy capitalist footprint.

The victory over Amazon was overrated in another way, as well. The election outcome notwithstanding, the power Amazon wields in Seattle, which is the company’s headquarters, is not as diminished as might at first seem from the headlines.

The Amazon tax was actually already passed last year. But it was repealed four weeks later when the tech giant, Seattle’s largest employer, threatened to forget about its expansion plans in the city. That balance of power hasn’t changed.

Finally, it must be said that irrespective of the specific outcome in Seattle, the story raises again the issue of campaign financing. There was nothing illegal in what Amazon did. It merely took advantage of the law that allows such heavy spending on campaigns through PACs and Super-PACs.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens made the point eloquently in a dissenting opinion on Super PACs: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

This was true before Seattle, and remains true after Seattle.