Amazon CEO: Relationship with Seattle City Council has become ‘rougher,’ but hope remains

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Amazon CEO Andy Jassy speaks at the 2021 GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Amazon President and CEO Andy Jassy admitted his company’s relationship with Seattle political leaders has become rocky over recent history, but added that he hopes it can improve in the years to come.

Jassy, speaking Tuesday at the GeekWire Summit, said the online retail giant and the city council need to move beyond scapegoating and back to the collaborative culture that defined the company’s first 20 years in Seattle which saw the transformation of both South Lake Union and the tech sector as a whole.

“I think our relationship with Seattle had ups and downs, frankly,” Jassy said while being interviewed by GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop. “I think the first 20ish years (was) pretty collaborative. We decided to build a downtown campus. (The city) was very supportive and solicitous.”

But then, five years ago, the mood changed, he said. 

“The City Council has become less enamored with business or with Amazon,” he said. “It’s just been rougher.”

(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

That rough period coincided with rapid and sometimes painful growth in Seattle as incomes and rent soared and expensive new developments made space for new businesses while crowding out and pricing out renters, homeowners and small businesses.

The issue came to a head four years ago with the council-approved head tax which while not limited to Amazon, specifically targeted the largest local companies with a per-employee tax in an effort to help the city raise tens of millions of dollars to pay for the effects of explosive growth. 

Initially the head tax — also called a payroll tax — passed the council unanimously. Then after business groups including Amazon organized opposition to the measure, the council then repealed the measure on a 7-2 vote. Even though, the city rescinded the tax vote, the damage to the relationship had been done.

Amazon’s subsequent forays into city politics and elections, including spending more than $1 million on an effort to elect new city councilmembers, were met with stiff opposition. Two years later, the city revisited the head tax with a more modest, graduated JumpStart Seattle tax on annual local salaries above $150,000, with some exceptions.

But the episodes underscored Amazon’s search for a friendlier business climate as part of its so-called HQ2 search. And while the search extended around the country, it ended up in part just around the corner in nearby Bellevue, Wash., where it plans to employ 25,000 people  —  the same amount it expects to hire in Northern Virginia, or its “HQ2.” 

“First of all, we don’t think of HQ1 being Seattle any longer. We really think of it as Puget Sound,” Jassy said. “We have a lot of people in Seattle, but we also have a lot of people in Bellevue and it is where most of our growth will end up being.” 

Amazon has more than 50,000 corporate and tech employees in the Seattle region, and thousands more at three fulfillment centers, an airport hub, an R&D facility for its satellite initiative Project Kuiper, and physical retail stores.

Bruce Harrell, candidate for Seattle mayor, said the city’s relationship with large and small businesses has to change.

“I fully recognize the importance of collaboration and forward-thinking relationships with businesses large and small, civic leaders, unions and advocates for equity and social responsibility,” Harrell said in a statement to GeekWire in response to Jassy’s comments.

“Key to any relationship is respect, listening, and articulation of shared goals. I think we have lost that sense of unity and shared purpose in our city, and as Mayor I will restore not just civility and collaboration – but urgency of action to address shared priorities in our city.”

We will update the story with comments from Seattle mayoral candidate and current council president Lorena Gonzalez when she responds. Both candidates spoke to GeekWire about the decisions facing the city’s new mayor following the upcoming November election.

Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said Jassy’s comments about the Seattle City Hall were spot-on. 

“Andy Jassy’s comments aren’t surprising and are more constructive than is probably deserved given the treatment Amazon has faced by City Hall in recent years,” Scholes said. “Certain city leaders have used Amazon as a convenient scapegoat to distract from their own failure to address real challenges facing Seattle, but voters are catching on.”

“Seattle is at its best when government and business are working together to tackle our most pressing problems.”

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