Amazon is dropping an additional $1 million-plus into Seattle’s pivotal City Council races, boosting its spending on politics in its hometown this year to an unprecedented $1.45 million.
The corporate giant has now shelled out more on the council races than any other business or union, and all of Amazon’s company money has gone to a political-action committee (PAC) associated with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which has been buying direct-mail advertisements and paying door-to-door canvassers.
Amazon’s outlay is the largest “in anyone’s memory” by a single entity in a Seattle election cycle, said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
The record-breaking sum is the latest sign that the company with 53,000 local employees, once content to stay on the political sidelines, is now throwing its weight around.
The Service Employees International Union and the Unite Here hotel-workers union also have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the council races, mostly to support candidates competing with those backed by the Chamber.
Businesses and other contributors can give no more than $250 to council candidates who are using Seattle’s taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers, and no more than $500 to candidates not using the vouchers. But there’s no such limit on contributions to PACs that spend independently from candidate campaigns.
Ballots for the Nov. 5 elections are being mailed to voters this week, with all seven of the council’s district seats up for grabs.
“We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle,” Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said Tuesday in a statement. “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.”
The Chamber’s PAC has reported spending more than $868,000 while attempting to revamp a council that in recent years has adopted a series of labor laws and business regulations, including a $15 minimum wage and workplace scheduling rules, and that has been dealing with a homelessness crisis.
To accomplish that, the group has been making independent expenditures to back general-election candidates in multiple open-seat races and to support candidates challenging incumbents Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant.
Amazon alone has contributed more money to the Chamber’s PAC than the candidates the Chamber opposes have collectively raised with their own campaigns.
“Emergency! Amazon just dropped a $1 million bomb on our city elections, in a flagrant attempt to blow up Seattle’s democratic process,” Sawant’s campaign wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday, later warning in a news release, “We cannot allow” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “to buy this election.”
Herbold and Sawant were among those who championed a per-employee tax on high-grossing corporations that the council adopted and then quickly repealed last year under pressure from Amazon, some other businesses and many voters.
The so-called head tax would have raised tens of millions of dollars per year to help address homelessness with more housing and services.
“One of the richest corporations in the world just invested an unprecedented amount of money to attempt a hostile takeover of Seattle’s local government,” Rachel Lauter, executive director of the union-backed Working Washington advocacy group, said in a statement.
“This isn’t just about Seattle, it’s about the 2020 national elections. Amazon is warning presidential candidates who say they share Seattle’s values that it will stop at nothing to protect its power and profits.”
Amazon was a huge player in the debate about the head tax, threatening to scrap two downtown Seattle projects and making demands at City Hall like it never had before.
Since that moment and the company’s battle with New York City activists and lawmakers over its plan to site a “second headquarters” there, Amazon has stepped up its political involvement.
The company has hosted primary- and general-election candidate forums for its tens of thousands of Seattle employees, and top Amazon leaders also have shown a personal interest in the council races. Eleven of 18 executives on the so-called “S-team” that reports directly to Bezos have donated to Seattle candidates and PACs this year, records show.
Before Tuesday, Amazon had contributed $400,000 to the Chamber’s PAC, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), which is using the company’s cash to pay for direct-mail ads and canvassers in contests such as the clash between District 3 socialist Sawant and her challenger, Egan Orion. CASE also has spent money on polling and consultants.
“The money CASE has raised is from local companies who care about the future of this city,” the PAC’s executive director, Markham McIntyre, said in a statement.
“We have a dysfunctional, toxic environment (at the council) and employers, including our city’s largest private employer, want a return to good government.”
CASE didn’t ask Amazon for a particular additional sum, McIntyre added in an interview.
“Amazon made some internal decisions about the opportunity they see for change,” he said. “We’re just very happy they’re so generous and wanting to invest in a program trying to bring about a council focused on the basics.”
McIntyre said he doesn’t know yet how CASE will spend the money. He didn’t rule out television ads, which are a blunt instrument for district races but which the hotel-workers union used ahead of the primary.
“We’re trying to make adjustments and decisions based on these new resources,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to talk to voters.”
In a statement, Orion called this year’s independent PAC spending “completely out of scale” with the grassroots campaigns that he and some other candidates are trying to run, “and is proving to be a distraction from the real issues.”
He criticized Sawant for not using democracy vouchers, said the independent spending is being driven by frustration with the current council and promised to pursue policies that would limit outside money in Seattle elections.
Unions representing in-home caregivers, supermarket workers and education workers teamed up with Working Washington and progressive political donor Nick Hanauer earlier this year to launch a rival PAC to CAPE, called Civic Alliance for a Progressive Economy (CAPE).
Vowing to combat the Chamber’s agenda, CAPE is spending smaller amounts of money to support candidates like Herbold.
In her statement, Working Washington’s Lauter slammed Amazon for cutting health-care benefits for some Whole Foods grocery workers recently and for paying nothing in federal income taxes last year.
Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González, who holds an at-large seat and is not up for election this year, pointed to the latest Amazon donation in renewing calls “to curb this type of corporate quid pro quo transaction in our local elections.”
She has been developing legislation that would limit contributions to independent-expenditure PACs in Seattle to $5,000 and entirely ban donations to such PACs by Amazon and other corporations that have non-U.S. investors. If passed, the law, which González said would not apply to union political spending, would almost certainly face a legal challenge.
Seattle Times Amazon reporter Benjamin Romano contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how much the Service Employees International Union and the Unite Here hotel-workers union have spent on Seattle City Council races. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.