One of the enduring mysteries of recent Seattle history is why Amazon, with former Obama press secretary Jay Carney as senior vice president for policy and press, made a last-minute contribution of more than $1 million in an effort to tilt the 2019 City Council election.
It’s not as if the company didn’t have a legitimate gripe. A majority of the council had made the city’s largest private-sector employer — an asset we got for free, while some 240 localities were willing to spend heavily on incentives for Amazon’s HQ2 — into a punching bag.
But, of course, such a huge infusion of money would be seen as trying to buy an election, fulfilling some of the worst of Amazon critics’ indictments and energizing support for the very candidates the company and “big business” wanted defeated. Which is what happened.
How could such a sophisticated, data-driven company have made such a colossal mistake?
As Talleyrand said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”
Amazon’s contribution was to a political action committee associated with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. PACs work independently from individual campaigns and aren’t subject to limits on spending.
Anyhoo, all five business-backed council candidates lost in 2019. After that shellacking, as Carney’s former boss would put it, the chamber is now taking a different approach. Rachel Smith, the new president and chief executive of the 2,500-member organization, is holding out an olive branch.
“I think we have to really put down our dukes,” she told my colleague Paul Roberts. “I’m not here to teach anybody a lesson. I am here to work in partnership and to demonstrate leadership to solve the toughest challenges that we have in our region. Period.”
One concrete step is that the chamber won’t endorse or fund any council candidates this year.
Whether the “woke” City Council will accept that branch is a big question.
Seattle was historically a business city. The famed Seattle General Strike of 1919 was a failure. This city hosted two world’s fairs, not least to showcase its commerce.
This continued into the 21st century, with the region as headquarters of two of the five Big Tech giants as well as high-end outposts of Silicon Valley companies. It enjoys one of the most diverse economies in North America.
Seattle’s genius for reinvention allowed it to ride out such city-hammering events as the Great Recession and come out stronger, one of the booming Superstar Cities.
But a profound change has happened. Can you imagine Seattle hosting a world’s fair today?
I came here from Phoenix in 2007, banished for calling the real-estate crash. There, in the fifth-most populous city in the nation, the three most important leaders were the mayor, governor and president of Arizona State University.
Here, I made a list of about 50 individuals who were more powerful leaders before I ever got to someone on the public payroll, with the exception of UW President Mark Emmert. Politicians really didn’t seem to matter.
The politics then were center-left, pragmatic and moving at the speed of molasses with “the Seattle process.” Things got done, such as building Link light rail, but it took time.
Far more important were business leaders and civic stewards such as Paul Allen, who turned South Lake Union into a national model of an “urban innovation district,” anchored by Amazon. Also, Seattle was drawing capital from around the world. Year after year, the construction fees from being the U.S. crane capital swelled city coffers.
The chamber itself was one of the most progressive such organizations in the nation, heavily staffed by Democrats and breaking with the reactionary U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2011 over climate change.
In the 2010s, Seattle politics began shifting left. So did a more aggressive stance toward business.
Much of this was in keeping with Seattle’s sensibility as a progressive, compassionate place. The roaring economy made the higher wage not even a speed bump. It seemed to validate the notion of a virtuous circle, where better-paid and better-treated workers spent more and were more productive.
Also, the most prosperous, competitive cities in the nation were blue.
In 2015, district representation began and the leftward shift became more pronounced. The exclamation point was the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to a council seat. Members with any private-sector experience dwindled. And antipathy toward business became overt.
The council in 2018 instituted a jobs tax under the rubric that it was a tax on Amazon. In fact, it would have affected nearly 700 companies. This demand for more money to address the unsheltered population left unanswered the question of why the problem was worse after so much had already been spent.
That jobs tax was hastily withdrawn. But it came back in a different form after the 2019 progressive victory, although the resulting measure faces a lawsuit from the Seattle chamber.
Then came the pandemic, shutting much of the economy; the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis followed by protests here; the city losing control of a portion of Capitol Hill, and looting, arson and rising crime tolerated by City Hall. The social justice warriors on the council showed little concern about shut businesses — some because of fear of crime — lost jobs and the danger that remote work might pose to downtown.
The chamber’s Smith wrote on PubliCola, “First and foremost on my to-do list is driving a robust and inclusive regional economic recovery.” Also “Equity and inclusion are also core pillars of that recovery agenda, and we need to focus our economic tools and resources to create a change in outcomes.”
She’s using keywords of the woke left — awake to race and gender issues, determined to address historical and current injustices. But whether that leads to “elevating — and pushing for — serious civic dialogue” with this triumphant council will be a neat trick.
Smith’s priorities include “specific economic recovery actions to ensure that large employers are able to bring employees back to safe and welcoming business districts, including downtown Seattle,” along with aid for small business. Also “making real and sustained progress” on the unsheltered crisis. And “implementing police reform and building trust in communities of color, in tandem with a robust plan to keep people and businesses safe.”
In other words, she’s not pushing an either-or agenda but one of “yes, both.” Her language makes clear that rebuilding a robust, diverse economy will benefit nearly everyone — this is not just a “business” issue. And accomplishing it is not at odds with social justice. Indeed, the two are intertwined.
Smith also has little private-sector experience, most recently serving as deputy county executive and chief of staff to King County Executive Dow Constantine. Maybe that will open doors and minds at City Hall.
Maybe she can play a long game until more pragmatic council members are elected.
Maybe. Maybe. It’s a hell of a way to come out of the shutdown.
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