At a recent Seattle City Council debate, both the candidates and the crowd were given a not-so-subtle reminder that there’s a man behind the curtain — or maybe an elephant in the room — in this municipal election that’s suddenly gone national.
Said a moderator: “City Club would like to acknowledge the presenting sponsor for tonight’s debate … Amazon.”
Some in the crowd laughed, in an “oh well, it figures” kind of way. Others booed. Afterward, one of the candidates, Socialist Alternative incumbent Kshama Sawant, put out a news release questioning how it came to pass that the largest donor to the elections was simultaneously sponsoring a debate. She asked: Who runs this city anyway?
All that was before Amazon dropped a record-setting million bucks into the election last week.
As recently as last summer, the City Council election appeared to be about specific local concerns — such as whether the city should sweep homeless camps, or leave them be. Not anymore. Now other question are swirling. Such as: What does Amazon really want? And: If Amazon’s power isn’t checked, will it run amok everywhere?
“The way Amazon conducts itself in its hometown is a perfect example of the out-of-control corporate greed we are going to end,” came a defiant statement this week from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren also spoke out, as did Seattle congressional Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who said she was “extremely disturbed” by Amazon putting “not just a thumb, but a fistful of cash, on the scales of democracy.”
Now it’s true none of these people were remotely disturbed when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dumped $2.5 million into a campaign for same-sex marriage in 2012. Or when Amazon also dumped $400,000, the week before last, into the campaign trying to defeat Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 to cut car tabs. Corporate cash sure looks different coming than going.
But regardless, Amazon has succeeded in suddenly changing the tone and the stakes of the City Council election.
We’ll see come November, but I doubt this was a smart play by Amazon. The election was playing out as a referendum on the performance of the City Council. Now it could well be a referendum on Amazon and corporate power.
“How much does Seattle trust Amazon” is a dramatically different question than “How much does Seattle trust its City Council?”
I think we know, through ample polling, that voters are disgruntled with the council. The surest tell is that four incumbents retired rather than fight this negative tide. A fifth, Sawant, struggled mightily in the August primary.
But it’s anybody’s guess what Seattle thinks about the bursting corporate Goliath in its midst. It’s a fascinating question, isn’t it? On the one hand, Amazon is ranked as the second-most trusted institution in America, after only the military. Among Democrats, Amazon is even more popular, scoring No. 1 as most trusted, just ahead of the university system, according to Georgetown University’s survey of public attitudes about the biggest players in U.S. life.
But that poll was before Amazon started getting overtly political. Trusting them with your package delivery isn’t the same as having faith they’ll do right down at City Hall.
For our Mayberry with skyscrapers, the scale of the influence is truly uncharted. The largest total contribution that a single business other than Amazon had ever made in Seattle City Council or mayoral elections was $108,000, by Vulcan, in 2017. Amazon’s $1.45 million this year is 14 times that. It’s roughly triple the largest financial effort made to date by any union.
Even the way the company is going about it practically invites caricature. News reports say they’ve activated their “S Team” to donate to a slate of business-friendly candidates. No, that “S” doesn’t stand for sinister, it’s for senior. But you can’t blame regular voters for hearing about this and forming their own S Teams. As in suspicious.
I gave up on making political predictions long ago, luckily before Trump made that enterprise look extra foolish. But Amazon making this election about them could cause a backlash.
Since the company dropped its million-dollar bomb, guess who has reported more than 300 donations to her campaign, just in the past week? It’s the one with 5,760 individual donors, more than twice as many as any other candidate, including 1,900 from around the country.
That’s right, Sawant. Amazon isn’t the only “S Team” in town. And just like she wanted it to be, now it’s on.