Amazon bid for business-friendly Seattle council withers as adversary makes surprise comeback

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Supporters of Seattle’s head tax rush the City Council chambers during a vote to repeal the controversial legislation at the behest of Amazon and other businesses. Behind the banner, Councilmember Kshama Sawant calls for order in this 2018 photo. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon’s top adversary on the Seattle City Council pulled ahead late Friday in the latest ballot count, deflating the tech giant’s $1.45 million effort to elect new leadership in its hometown. The company’s involvement in Seattle’s election appears to have backfired, as just two of the seven candidates who benefited from Amazon’s record spending prevailed.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant came back from what looked like a defeat in early polling despite a massive financial push from the business community to elect her opponent. A member of the Socialist Alternative party, Sawant is a vocal critic of Amazon. She regularly holds demonstrations at the company’s Seattle headquarters and was a leading opponent of a big business tax that she dubbed the “Amazon Tax.”

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant protests corporate spending in Seattle elections at Amazon’s headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

As of Friday, five of the seven candidates backed by Amazon and the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce were trailing their opponents. The results suggest that the new Seattle City Council could be even more progressive than the one that the business community attempted to unseat.

Three weeks ago, Amazon donated $1 million to the Seattle Chamber’s political action committee, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy. The record donation brought Amazon’s total contributions to CASE to $1.45 million, a whopping sum that politicians on the left called an attempt to buy the City Council. CASE endorsed and financially backed the following candidates, who were seen as more business-friendly and pragmatic than their opponents:

Seattle City Council Position 1: Phil Tavel

Seattle City Council Position 2: Mark Solomon

Seattle City Council Position 3: Egan Orion

Seattle City Council Position 4: Alex Pedersen

Seattle City Council Position 5: Debora Juarez

Seattle City Council Position 6: Heidi Wills

Seattle City Council Position 7: Jim Pugel

Among the CASE-backed candidates, just Pedersen and incumbent Juarez maintain comfortable leads. Pugel’s opponent Andrew Lewis overtook him in votes reported after Tuesday. Washington’s mail-in voting system means results are reported in waves in the days following election night.

CASE spent $443,000 in support of Sawant’s opponent, Orion, more than any other candidate, according to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission records. Despite that financial boost, Sawant pulled ahead with 51.57 percent of the vote Friday.

Update: Sawant declared victory in the hotly contested race Saturday.

CASE Executive Director Markham McIntyre issued this statement after the latest ballot drop:

Congratulations to the candidates who won. The business community stands ready to work with the new Seattle City Council—just as we have partnered with elected leaders to support a regional approach to homelessness, to advocate for more transit, and to add resources for affordable housing.

It’s time to turn the corner to governing. There is a lot of work ahead on issues like homelessness, affordability, transportation, and public safety. These are long-term issues that require long-term partnership. How our local government chooses to partner – or create division – matters. That is why we engaged in these elections, and the Chamber and the business community are as committed as ever to our region’s civic future.

Related: Seattle’s upcoming election is inundated with tech money — and it’s not just Amazon

Orion and other candidates who won CASE’s endorsements sought to distance themselves from Amazon’s donation, which became a lightning rod in Seattle politics.

The day Amazon made its donation, Orion issued a statement saying, “the influx of PAC money in city politics this year is completely out of scale with the grassroots campaign myself and many others are trying to run, and is proving to be a distraction from the real issues.”

Asked about the tech donations before the election, Pedersen echoed Orion.

“The big money from PACs is absolutely NOT needed or welcome because doorbelling, professional experience, and a focus on results are what really matters to voters, instead of excessive ads or negative attacks,” he said in a statement.

It was a record year for PAC spending across the board in Washington state. Business advocacy groups and trade associations spent $4.9 million in independent expenditures, according to Public Disclosure Commission records. Unions and labor advocacy groups contributed more than $4.7 million in independent expenditures.

Big Tech’s interest in the election attracted attention from some of the biggest names in national politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed several candidates running against CASE’s picks. He doubled down on those efforts on Election Day, tweeting his support for those candidates.

Amazon stepped up civic engagement in its hometown following a bitter and public dispute last year over the so-called “head tax.” The proposal would have taxed top-grossing companies in the city on a per-employee basis to fund affordable housing and homeless services. Sawant was a leading advocate for the tax.

The Seattle City Council passed the head tax to the consternation of the business community. Amazon paused construction on its last major office tower in Seattle and threatened not to move into the massive Rainier Square building, questioning the Council’s “hostile” attitude toward business. The City Council abruptly repealed the head tax a few weeks after passing it. Amazon ended up subleasing Rainier Square to other tenants anyway.

The dispute highlighted deep divisions in Seattle between the far-left and business community. The current Seattle City Council has passed some of the most progressive legislation in the nation, including a $15 minimum wage and protections for domestic workers. The new City Council likely to take over based on the latest results could push Seattle’s government even further to the left.

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