More than a year ago, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold teared up as she voted to repeal a per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses that would have raised money for homeless housing and services.
“This is not a winnable battle at this time,” Herbold said, referring to a referendum on the so-called head tax bankrolled by Amazon and other large companies. “The opposition has unlimited resources” to spend on turning voters against the tax.
Fast forward to this year’s council elections, and that picture may have changed. An attempt by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to remake the council and ensure policies like the head tax would never return has been soundly rejected by a progressive-minded electorate, despite Amazon pouring nearly $1.5 million into seven district races through the chamber’s no-limit political-action committee (PAC).
Now Herbold and socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant, the chamber’s top targets, have both declared victory in their reelection bids, and chamber-endorsed candidates have lost almost all the other clashes — maybe due in part to voter backlash against Amazon’s spending. So the question is: Will the next council wade back into last year’s “unwinnable” battle and enact the agenda that business leaders sought to avoid, including something like what Sawant called the “Amazon tax?”
That remains to be seen, because the new council members campaigned with various positions on the head tax, Amazon isn’t likely to surrender and players like Mayor Jenny Durkan are still in the mix. However, a new-look business tax and lefty measures in other areas are major possibilities.
“I look forward to working with the new City Council to urgently pass a strong tax” on companies like the tech and retail giant, Sawant said at a news conference Saturday, telling reporters such a tax would help underwrite “a massive expansion of social housing and services.”
She called the election results “as close to a referendum on the Amazon tax as possible,” and also “a mandate for progressive ideas” more broadly, as supporters chanted “rent control, rent control, make Seattle affordable.”
Herbold, Tammy Morales, Sawant, Alex Pedersen, incumbent Debora Juarez, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis are set to take the council’s district seats. Only Pedersen was backed by the chamber in a contest against a left-wing opponent, Shaun Scott, and Scott lacked progressive PAC spending. The chamber also endorsed Juarez, but she was supported by more liberal groups, as well.
The council — which also includes citywide members Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González, who weren’t up for election — will soon have a solid progressive majority and just two members with close chamber ties, down from four as recently as earlier this year. González has previously been endorsed by the business group but backed its 2019 foes.
“They will have the political desire to effectively address economic security for the broad swath of people who live in our city and they can only do that by looking at progressive taxation,” said John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute and a council lobbyist, adding, “These elections give them complete ratification for that.”
Amazon didn’t provide additional comment for this story. In a statement Wednesday, before Sawant climbed past Egan Orion, an executive said the company was “pleased with the direction” of the races and looking forward to working with a new council “considerably more open to constructive dialogue.”
How Amazon lost
Last year’s head-tax debate was what launched the 2019 election cycle, drumming up discussion not only about revenue but also about whether City Hall was spending wisely in addressing homeless camping and street crime.
But the $1 million that Amazon contributed in a single day to the chamber’s PAC last month was the event that kicked the cycle into its highest gear.
Knowing the number would generate headlines, Amazon executives made a bet its candidates would prevail and deliver a message from the company.
Yet the mammoth company appears to have made the wrong wager, and some City Hall watchers think the money dump may have backfired — particularly in District 3, where Sawant for months had been describing her race as a struggle between ordinary people and “big business” moguls like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Though Sawant needed a dramatic surge in late ballot counts to overtake chamber-supported challenger Orion, she said Saturday, “Our movement has won, and defended our socialist council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.”
“Yes, it was close, … with everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us — and in the end, Jeff Bezos did throw in the kitchen sink, perhaps not to his benefit.”
“You never want to make yourself the story, and (Amazon) did just that,” said Monisha Harrell, a political consultant and board chair at Equal Rights Washington. “It became about, ‘Are you pro-Amazon or not?’ and the personalities of the individual candidates in some way got lost in that.”
Some swing voters may have been pushed away from the chamber’s candidates, said Harrell, arguing, “Nobody likes to think that they are for sale.”
The chamber-backed candidates had no direct control over what the group’s independent PAC was doing (such PACs are prohibited from coordinating with candidate campaigns).
But Phil Tavel, a West Seattle lawyer defeated by Herbold in District 1, said he saw the anti-Amazon narrative take hold while knocking on doors. Tavel noticed a change from dissatisfaction with the current council to anger at Amazon, he said.
“I had one guy tell me how awful it was that I was taking money from Amazon as he was picking up Prime packages right in front of me,” he recalled.
More powerful than the impact on swing voters was the impact on people who might not have voted otherwise, Tavel speculated. Some of those people started paying attention to the Seattle races when Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weighed in against the company’s spending, he said.
“What the late contribution by Amazon did was nationalize the local races,” agreed Dujie Tahat, a political communications strategist. “There was energy (added to the races) that wouldn’t have been there had they not been nationalized.”
Yet it would be a mistake to draw a straight line from Amazon’s involvement to the election results, which were largely driven by Seattle residents voting their values, Tahat said.
Burbank agreed. “There’s an underlying progressive nature to the electorate,” particularly among younger voters, “that has a lot to do with the economic inequalities that have been accelerated and exaggerated in the last six years,” he said.
Some of the chamber-endorsed candidates were simply underwhelming, added Dean Nielsen, a political consultant for candidates on both sides of this year’s skirmishes between business groups and service-worker unions.
He mentioned Tavel and Heidi Wills, who carried baggage from her previous stint on the council into her District 6 race against Strauss. All of this month’s winning candidates topped their August primary races.
“The chamber candidates were weaker. They didn’t have the kind of profiles that made people get excited,” said Nielsen, who worked with Herbold, Strauss and Pedersen in District 4.
Mark Solomon, a crime-prevention coordinator defeated by community organizer Morales in District 2, said Amazon’s money “did distract” from other issues, such as homelessness and policing.
But Solomon believes voters mostly chose based on their own convictions. While those who picked him did so “because they liked my approach, my collaborative spirit,” more went with Morales, he said, demonstrating support for her ideas.
Across the city, voters showed less desire to get tougher on camping and crime and to tighten up budgets than the chamber had predicted, suggesting popular outrage of that sort was never so widespread, despite the business group’s encouragement.
Markham McIntyre, executive director of the chamber’s PAC, argued the anti-Amazon narrative turned attention away from such topics. Yet he acknowledged Sawant’s political ability.
“She has really robust campaign infrastructure and she’s in campaign mode all day, every day,” McIntyre said, promising that business leaders will try to work with the new council. “Her answer to everything is, ‘Tax business and let the government do it,’ and apparently that resonated with a lot of voters.”
A new-look head tax?
Whether electoral losses for the chamber will immediately translate into a new tax on businesses like Amazon and other policies with the same bent is tough to answer, said Tahat.
During their campaigns, Strauss waffled on questions about last year’s $275-per-head tax, which would have raised nearly $50 million annually, and Lewis criticized the measure. Tahat called them key “unknowns.”
Herbold and Juarez voted for the tax, but they also voted to repeal it under pressure from corporate leaders, some skeptical voters and worrisome private polling, along with González. Only Sawant and Mosqueda at the time opposed the repeal.
“While Amazon lost (Tuesday’s elections), it’s unclear whether the people of Seattle have won,” said Tahat, who supports new taxation, suggesting the outcome will hinge on whether left-wing voters stay tuned in.
“Public accountability worked to rebuke an attempt at a corporate takeover of the council … But will those voters stay engaged during the policymaking? Will they continue to pressure their council members?”
Harrell (whose uncle, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, voted to pass and then repeal the head tax) said the past week’s results won’t necessarily lead to a carbon copy of last year’s measure, which she contends was drawn up with inadequate public input.
“They could say, ‘Screw Amazon, we’re going to pass it.’ Well, the problem is they don’t know what voters want,” Harrell said, arguing the next council should start by talking more to constituents.
“You could run an initiative. You could run an advisory vote,” she said, noting that Seattle voters almost always approve taxes.
Unsurprisingly, Burbank is more bullish on the idea of a new big-business tax.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a head tax the way it was put together before, but I think we’ll see more nuanced taxation” aimed at outlier companies, Burbank added. “Amazon has got to be the target.”
Like Sawant, Morales is a critic of the city sweeping away unauthorized homeless encampments. And on her campaign website, she listed seven new taxing options she’d like to see Seattle explore to raise money for housing, child care, transit and bike lanes and to lower property and sales taxes.
Those include a head tax three times larger than last year’s, plus a local estate tax, a mansion tax and an excess-compensation tax.
The council was always likely to revisit such issues, considering Seattle’s needs, but the election results will make for “an easier conversation,” Morales said Friday.
“We need to look at what happened with the head tax last time and think strategically about how to do this better,” counter opposition early and explain the rationale to residents, she said. “Until the state Legislature (makes major tax-system changes), we’re going to have to talk about this.”
The election results could change the power dynamic between Durkan and the council and whether the mayor can advance her agenda. She pushed to scale back Seattle’s head tax last year, then signed the measure and later sought the repeal.
Sawant, who has tangled with Durkan, called the results “a repudiation of the billionaire class, of corporate real estate and of the establishment.”
Durkan jumped into the District 2 race before the primary to endorse Solomon and warn voters against Morales, describing the candidate as a socialist. But Morales went on to dominate the primary and the mayor stepped back until after Tuesday.
“One reason I love Seattle is because people and voters here make up their own minds,” Durkan said in a neutral statement Friday. “Together, the new council and I will continue to face some tough challenges … We must continue to ensure our prosperity is shared.”
New council members may get a chance to signal where they intend to take Seattle politics with legislation that González is developing to strictly limit contributions to PACs and to ban global corporations like Amazon from donating.
The policy would curb Amazon’s involvement in local politics, and González is likely to be a leader on the next council. She campaigned for a union-backed Sawant challenger in the District 3 primary but threw her support behind the incumbent after Amazon’s $1 million power play.
Riall Johnson, a political consultant who worked with Morales, said he thinks the council won’t be bullied by such companies any more.
“They can throw all the threats they want but I think the council will stand strong this time, and I think they should go even further,” Johnson said.
Reporter Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.