Earlier this year, 11 members of Amazon’s so-called “S Team” — senior leaders who report directly to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos — started writing checks to a group of Seattle City Council candidates and a political-action committee. For most of the executives, it marked their first donations to Seattle council races.
The local political spending of Amazon’s top executives, along with a record-setting $1 million contribution to a pro-business political-action committee last week, underscore the company’s desire for a more accommodating council in the city where it occupies nearly 50 buildings and has more than 50,000 employees.
It’s also another signal of the evolving relationship between Amazon and its hometown, and is drawing national attention ahead of a pivotal election, including from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Despite its decision a decade ago to grow an urban campus, the $900 billion commerce and technology giant had remained largely aloof from local politics, even as voters elected Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative party member who has used her council platform to rail against the company, often with its own iconic spheres as a backdrop.
Amazon was a bit player when Sawant was first elected on a citywide basis six years ago, defeating 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin. In that race, one Amazon executive donated $200 to Conlin, while four company employees donated a total of $800 to Sawant.
Amazon’s local political awakening began in earnest in 2017, as the Seattle City Council started a public discussion of a “head tax” on big businesses to fund housing and homeless services. That year, the company donated $350,000 to a business PAC to help get Mayor Jenny Durkan elected.
Last year, when the council and Durkan approved a $250-per-employee tax on big businesses, Amazon reacted by threatening to halt its growth in the city. Amid objections by other businesses and poor polling numbers, the head tax was abruptly repealed.
Business leaders have argued the council has been dysfunctional, and hostile or indifferent to businesses, and note that union-funded PACs are also big contributors in the 2019 elections.
For example, Citizens for a Progressive Economy, a PAC backed by unions and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer (himself an early Amazon investor), has raised nearly $500,000 to oppose the chamber’s favored candidates. And the hotel-worker union, UNITE HERE, has spent more than $500,000 backing council candidate Andrew Lewis in District 7.
But Amazon’s seven-figure political investment has renewed calls by some to limit big money in local politics.
“No, the Seattle City Council is not ‘Deal of the Day,’ Amazon, and we are not selling our Seattle City Council and our democracy to the highest bidder,” said Councilmember M. Lorena González, who holds one of two at-large council seats not up for election this year, at a news conference last week in front of Amazon’s headquarters.
González is developing legislation seeking to ban PAC contributions from corporations such as Amazon that have foreign investors. Her proposal would limit other PAC contributions to $5,000.
Sen. Warren, a frequent critic of Amazon and other big corporations who has proposed breaking up it and other large tech companies, on Saturday tweeted about Amazon’s political spending. She expressed support for “Seattle council members and activists who continue standing up to Amazon. Corporations aren’t people, and I have a plan to get big money out of politics.”
Even before Warren’s tweet, the Seattle City Council election — and Amazon’s role — was getting national attention. It can be read as a proxy in a broader national clash between organized labor and corporate power. The slate of candidates backed by money from Amazon and other business interests is facing off against council incumbents and candidates supported by affiliates of unions that have organized Amazon contract security staff in Seattle and warehouse workers in Minnesota.
Amazon, along with other technology giants growing in Seattle, has brought vast wealth and record-low unemployment, and spurred increases in construction, traffic and housing costs — contributing to the homelessness crisis. As Amazon became the city’s dominant economic force, voters elected an increasingly progressive council that has been highly critical of big business.
“The hyper growth of Amazon has coincided with the swing in the council to the left,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor who studies the intersection of politics and the technology industry.
Amazon’s high-profile involvement in this election — including candidate forums, stepped-up press relations and campaign cash — is not only a reaction to that swing, and the policies and rhetoric that have arisen from it, but also a sign of the 25-year-old company’s maturation.
“I think part of this is a life-cycle thing,” O’Mara said, adding, “Amazon was conspicuously absent for so long.”
Amazon’s growing political involvement has coincided with a significant increase in its local philanthropy, focused on the hot-button issue of homelessness. Last week, Amazon unveiled a shelter for homeless families as part of a new company office building set to open early next year — a project to which the company is contributing $100 million over 10 years.
In a company of more than 650,000 employees, a small group of long-tenured senior executives meets regularly to chart Amazon’s strategy, make its biggest decisions and review major missteps. This year, a majority of the 18-person S Team became politically active in Seattle.
Andy Jassy, chief executive of Amazon Web Services, the company’s highly profitable cloud computing business, made individual donations to the campaigns of council challengers Egan Orion, Heidi Wills, Philip Tavel, and incumbent Debora Juarez, as did Jeffrey Wilke, chief executive of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, general counsel David Zapolsky and global head of corporate affairs Jay Carney.
One or more of those candidates were backed by other S Team members including top human resources executive Beth Galetti, chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky, and senior vice presidents Doug Herrington, Russ Grandinetti and Jeff Blackburn.
Members of the Amazon S Team also gave a combined $46,000 to People for Seattle, a PAC run by former Seattle mayor and councilmember Tim Burgess that has supported the same slate of candidates.
Through Oct. 15, about 139 Amazon employees had made contributions to various council candidates and PACs, totaling more than $102,000, according to city election data. More than half that total came from 11 individuals on the S Team. Meanwhile, 14 Amazon employees contributed about $3,773 to Sawant.
Amazon, through spokesman Aaron Toso, declined to make any of its executives available for interviews or comment on their political spending.
“We are engaging in this election because we want Seattle to have a city government that works,” Toso said in a written statement, citing a need for solutions to issues including homelessness, traffic and climate change. Amazon, he noted, has backed measures to address these issues, such as Sound Transit 3 and the 2018 Seattle education levy.
The individual Amazon executive contributions, made throughout the year, didn’t make nearly the splash as the corporate spending.
Amazon’s $1 million donation last week to the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), a PAC associated with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, was the largest outlay by a corporation or other single player in a Seattle city election. It came on top of $400,000 Amazon gave earlier to CASE to spend on the election.
Crystal Fincher, a local political consultant, called the late cash infusion “mind boggling” — especially in the context of seven district-level elections, each decided by a few city neighborhoods.
“Most people have not prepared for this kind of scenario where someone comes in and drops a million dollars in the final few weeks of a municipal campaign. Money is a megaphone and they have bought the ability to shout most other people down,” she said.
Markham McIntyre, the executive director of CASE, disputed that Amazon is buying the election. “I disagree. It’s up to the voters. All we’re trying to do is make sure they have a choice here. Amazon cares deeply about its hometown,” he said.
Indeed, the unprecedented political spending by Amazon and its top executives could allay lingering fears that the company is pulling up stakes in Seattle — concerns stoked in the last two years by its search for a second headquarters and threat to halt two office expansion projects in protest of the head tax.
While its decadelong building boom here is coming to an end, Amazon now has some 53,500 employees in the region, the vast majority spread among its dense headquarters campus in the city’s South Lake Union and the Denny Regrade neighborhoods. The company is targeting future growth for Bellevue (where it has also backed council candidates), its second headquarters outside Washington, D.C., and its network of engineering and operations hubs around the country.
Amazon still has more than 10,000 job openings in Seattle. With so much investment and staff fixed in the city, the company is looking for a city government that is less adversarial — although the company’s cash splash in the waning weeks of a contentious election has only widened the rift with its detractors on the City Council.
As news of Amazon’s latest political spending spread last week, Sawant and other council members, candidates and activists held a news conference in front of Amazon’s downtown headquarters. Speaking under a tent in a chilly rain, Sawant railed against Amazon’s “million dollar bombshell” which she said was undermining democracy, and led the small group of event attendees in a chant.
“When the billionaires are on the attack, what do we do?” she said. “Stand up, fight back!” the crowd shouted.
Amazon lobbyist and former Democratic state Sen. Guy Palumbo, standing behind reporters at the scene, quietly chanted his own response: “Lose!”
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Markham McIntyre and said the shelter at Amazon for homeless families had opened already; it opens early next year.
A chart showing Amazon donations to local elections in recent years has been removed from this story because it contained inaccurate contribution totals from the 2017 elections.