Two Amazon executives faced jeers and pointed questions during three hours of testimony at a hearing about the plan to build a new outpost in Queens.
NEW YORK — It was variously described as a rite of passage, a take-your-medicine moment and a very New York-style welcome: Two Amazon executives raised their right hands and then faced more than three hours of public grilling by the New York City Council.
But if the ritual of barbed questions and evasive answers was not unusual, the circumstances of Wednesday’s hearing were: Amazon does not need the council’s approval to locate new offices in Long Island City, Queens. Still, the appearance marked the company’s first major foray into New York’s public spotlight since announcing the deal.
Council members took advantage of the executives sitting before them to vent their anger at the terms of the agreement, as well as at Amazon’s business practices, treatment of labor unions and work on behalf of federal immigration officials.
They were backed up, with applause, shouts and jeers, by a spectrum of liberal opponents who packed the council’s chambers, unfurling an anti-Amazon banner from the balcony at the start of the hearing. Several times the crowd drowned out the two executives as they attempted to explain the merits of the deal struck with the company last month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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“We believe this project will be a positive economic impact for the city and the state,” said Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy for Amazon. Repeatedly, his remarks were met by guffaws from the audience of antagonists.
Lobbyists for Amazon, hired to navigate an increasingly hostile political landscape, sat in a row near the front, and could be seen occasionally huddling with a de Blasio official on the sideline.
The two fronts in the room mirrored those that have competed in recent weeks to win over public opinion in Queens, where Amazon has quietly taken meetings with local leaders, and activists who backed incoming Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been going door to door to build opposition to the company’s new outpost there.
At the council on Wednesday, opponents of the deal, which would bring an estimated 25,000 jobs to Long Island City, in exchange for as much as $3 billion in state and city incentives, strongly outnumbered supporters. None of the council members in the overwhelmingly Democratic body spoke up in favor of the deal, and they vented their frustration at having been left out of the closed-door negotiations that preceded the announcement of the deal.
“James, you disrespected this body with how you handled this process,” Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City, said to James Patchett, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corp., during a particularly aggressive exchange.
“We got played,” the council speaker, Corey Johnson, said to Patchett at another point, speaking of Amazon’s nationwide competition. “They were able to pit city after city against each other.”
“I don’t know who I’m more angry at: the administration or Amazon,” said Jumaane Williams, a councilman from Brooklyn who is a candidate for public advocate.
But the rhetorical points they scored over the course of the often-testy hearing remained symbolic: By design, the agreement between the city, the state and Amazon does not give the City Council the power to veto it. Instead, the company’s development of new offices along the East River will be subject to a state planning process.
The company appeared before the council voluntarily; representatives of the state agency that negotiated the deal declined an invitation to attend.
By the time it was over Huseman and another Amazon executive, Holly Sullivan, looked as if they may have regretted coming.
Throughout the hearing, Sullivan and Huseman, who kept his hands folded on the table in front of him, tried to maintain an even tone and a posture of listening even when the questions were witheringly direct.
“Amazon is a $1 trillion company, is that accurate?” Johnson asked.
“I think it’s close to that,” Huseman said.
“So why should we give you that money?” Johnson said of the incentives.
Huseman responded that the incentives in the deal were based on performance. The company, he said, made its decision to come to Queens and open another large office in a Virginia suburb of Washington a day before it was publicly announced in November.
He and Sullivan characterized their presence at the council as part of an effort to learn about New York City and the needs of the Queens community. Explaining why the company preferred a state process rather than the city’s more lengthy one, Huseman said that Amazon’s goal “is to hire workers quickly.”
“Talent was the primary driver for our location decision,” Sullivan said at one point.
Patchett showed more frustration with the council, sparring at several points with Van Bramer, who pressed him to discuss de Blasio’s involvement in the negotiations.
“I certainly spoke with him or met with him in person over 10 times,” Patchett said of his interactions with the mayor.
“So the mayor cannot meet with many of his own commissioners about everyday city business and how the city functions,” Van Bramer said, “but he can meet with you 10 times at least in the last year just on this Amazon deal?”
At about the same time, the mayor’s press secretary posted a 2017 letter on Twitter from Van Bramer that expressed support for the city’s bid to bring Amazon to Long Island City. (Van Bramer has said he regretted his early enthusiasm.)
De Blasio, who has described himself as being from the same wing of the Democratic Party as Ocasio-Cortez, defended the deal at an unrelated news conference after the hearing, even as he professed a connection with the activists opposing it in the streets.
“I totally feel solidarity with them,” he said. “I’m in their wing of the party and I’m honored to be in the same wing with them. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything.”
The hearing ended with a harangue by Johnson after the Amazon executives at first refused to commit the company to attend future council hearings.
“Sorry sir, I’m humbled and grateful,” Huseman stumbled as Johnson chastised him for delivering the same comment several times about wanting a dialogue. “But you’re asking me to commit to a specific hearing.”
Finally, he agreed: “Absolutely we’ll come.”
Still, that was not enough.
“It is insulting,” Johnson said, “for you not to say right away.”
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