Amazon has shown unprecedented interest in this year’s wide open Seattle City Council elections, most recently hosting a candidate forum for employees Tuesday evening.
Dozens of the 55 candidates, or their campaign representatives, running across seven district races appeared for a science-fair-style forum at the commerce giant’s Meeting Center across from The Spheres. Each was assigned to a table, their names and council districts projected on a wall. Attendees walked around and chatted as they pleased, eating food provided by FareStart, candidates said.
The Amazon candidate forum follows a $200,000 contribution to the political action committee of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. The chamber endorsed a slate of candidates last week.
As Seattle’s largest private employer, Amazon has a vested interest in the city’s politics and last year found itself the target of a new business tax, which it opposed by threatening to pause its growth in the city. Less than a month after passing the tax, the City Council voted to repeal it.
The company has been criticized for driving up housing costs, contributing to gentrification. At the same time, Amazon’s 45,000-plus employees in Seattle could represent a significant voting block.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Phyllis Porter, a candidate in District 2 (South Seattle, Chinatown International District). “[Amazon’s employees] work all the time so they may not usually have a chance to sit down and follow each race.”
The larger crowds were around candidates running in District 7 (downtown, South Lake Union, Queen Anne and Magnolia), where many Amazon employees live, Porter said.
She said nearly all the candidates in District 2 were present. One Amazon employee asked Porter about homelessness, while another wanted to talk about Rainier Avenue South. Porter has worked as a vocational educator and a street-safety advocate.
Joshua Newman, a Boeing engineer running in District 4 (Eastlake, Wallingford, University District, Northeast Seattle), said the Amazon forum was different from many of the other campaign stops he makes.
“It was a very young crowd,” Newman said. “Most of the forums in District 4 attract older residents — retired people and parents. This Amazon group was younger.”
The candidate said he had a long conversation with an Amazon employee who moved to Seattle from the Midwest “to be in an urban environment where he could walk and ride the bus,” but he has been made uncomfortable at times when sharing sidewalks and buses with people in crisis.
“He still wants to do it, but it makes him uncomfortable and infringes on his sense of safety,” Newman said. “Of course, with people [who] are homeless or having mental-health crises, their sense of safety is shattered, as well.”
Other attendees wanted to talk about housing. Some Amazon employees who live in smaller apartments near downtown are thinking about where they might want to move as they start families.
“They don’t want to move to the suburbs, but they might want to move to somewhere like District 4, into a duplex or a townhouse,” Newman said.
Porter, who’s pledged to represent people struggling to get by in the South End, noted that the relevant issues impacting that constituency aren’t necessarily the same for well-paid Amazon employees she spoke with.
“But on the other side, they’re just people like everybody else and they’re going to vote, so they need to hear from us,” she said.
Amazon has had other elected officials speak to employees and held a “fireside chat” during the last election with mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon. Tuesday’s event was the largest of its kind, in part because of the size of the field up for election.
“This event was an opportunity for Amazonians to meet with candidates to discuss critical issues,” said senior vice president and general counsel David Zapolsky in a statement. “I am excited about the enthusiasm that our employees have for supporting a City Council that will focus on solving the problems our community faces.”
Seattle Times business reporter Benjamin Romano contributed to this report.