Amazon quietly works to reshape politics in its hometown after going to battle with Seattle officials

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Supporters of the head tax rush the City Council chambers during a vote to repeal the controversial legislation. Behind the banner, Councilmember Kshama Sawant calls for order. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

For the first two decades of its life, Amazon avoided the political limelight. But over the past year, the Seattle tech giant has started raising its voice on a wide range of issues and in a variety of political arenas.

Amazon’s federal lobbying budget has ballooned to record heights and the company is making a habit of calling out prominent politicians on Twitter. Not to mention the year Amazon spent negotiating with city officials as it sought a location for its second headquarters.

This abrupt tack has caught a lot of attention. But in a more subtle campaign, Amazon has also been working to influence local politics in its hometown.

Seattle has a major election coming up, with all seven City Council positions up for grabs. To Amazon, it represents an opportunity to largely unseat a council it has accused of being “hostile” and taking “anti-business positions.”

On Tuesday, Amazon hosted a private event for its employees with more than 40 Seattle City Council candidates and their representatives.

“This event was an opportunity for Amazonians to meet with candidates to discuss critical issues,” said Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in a statement to GeekWire. “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.”

The event resembled a science fair, with candidates grouped by district. Employees were invited to have informal, one-on-one discussions with the council hopefuls.

Though Amazon isn’t endorsing candidates directly, the company has put money in the game. Amazon donated $200,000 to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which just released its endorsements.

Amazon is mobilizing its employees to get engaged in a variety of ways. One avenue is through Sea.Citi, a volunteer organization formed by Amazon, Zillow, and other tech companies in the Seattle region. This month, Sea.Citi launched a new initiative called Innovators Engage that asks tech workers to pledge to vote in exchange for invitations to candidate forums and events, plus reminders about election deadlines.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Amazon public policy manager Eileen Sullivan, and CEO Nick Merriam announce the launch of the new organization. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

There’s a reason Amazon is so energized about this particular election. The company has scaled to about 50,000 employees in Seattle over the past decade, a boom that has dramatically impacted the region. That rapid growth has earned the ire of some Seattleites and councilmembers who blame the company for Seattle’s growing pains and want it to do more to mitigate them.

Tensions boiled over last year when the City Council passed a per-employee tax on Seattle’s top-grossing businesses to pay for affordable housing. Amazon balked, pausing construction on one of the buildings it was developing and threatening to slow its growth in the city. City Councilmember Kshama Sawant led marches across the tech giant’s campus with activists carrying signs that read “Tax Amazon.”

Despite Amazon’s opposition, the City Council unanimously passed the so-called “head tax.”

“We are disappointed by today’s City Council decision to introduce a tax on jobs … we remain very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here,” said Vice President Drew Herdener, at the time.

Amazon and other businesses donated thousands to a campaign fighting the tax, leading the Council to ultimately repeal it less than a month after it passed. The upcoming election is an opportunity to reshape the City Council and Amazon wants its say.

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