Amazon’s $1.45M fails to upend Seattle City Council, but tech giant wins small victories

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

A heavily-funded campaign to elect a more business-friendly Seattle City Council saw some success in early election results released Tuesday evening. But the effort, spearheaded by Seattle tech giant Amazon, was not a slam dunk. Several business-backed candidates trailed their more progressive competitors in the first reported votes, suggesting the new City Council will not be a dramatic departure from the previous one.

Seattle’s elections have become a national political spectacle thanks to a last-minute $1 million contribution from Amazon, a company with a history of going head-to-head with the city’s current leadership.

Of the seven Seattle City Council seats up for grabs, four candidates with backing from the business community were leading their opponents in early election results. The other three leading candidates did not receive endorsements from Amazon-backed business groups. The results are subject to change, with early reports reflecting roughly half of Seattle’s ballots, because of Washington state’s vote-by-mail system. The next round of votes will be reported on Wednesday evening.

Three weeks ago, Amazon donated $1 million to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’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 are 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 CASE’s candidates, Orion, Pedersen, Juarez, and Pugel were ahead of their opponents in the first round of results posted at 8:15 p.m Tuesday.

Three candidates running against CASE’s picks were ahead of their opponents in early results. Those candidates are incumbent Lisa Herbold and newcomers Tammy Morales and Dan Strauss.

CASE’s top priority was unseating Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in District 3, based on the PAC’s expenditures. A member of the Socialist Alternative party, Sawant is a frequent critic of Amazon. Last year, she branded a short-lived tax on Seattle’s big businesses as the “Amazon Tax” and she has hosted several rallies at Amazon’s headquarters protesting the company’s impact on the city.

CASE spent $443,000 in support of Sawant’s opponent, Orion, more than any other candidate, according to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission records.

Orion was ahead of Sawant with 54 percent of votes in the first reported results. But Sawant is expected to regain some ground from later voters.

“Win or lose — and most likely it’s a win — I want to say a big thank you to all of you tonight and all the voters in District 3 who took a chance on this political newcomer,” Orion told the crowd at his Election Night party.

After Orion, CASE spent the most money in support of the Wills campaign, more than $431,000 in independent expenditures. That effort did not appear to be as successful, based on initial reporting. Strauss was ahead of Wills with 52 percent of early votes.

The tech industry was acutely interested in this election. Beyond Amazon’s headline-grabbing donations, tech leaders and business advocacy groups amped up their spending on candidates and initiatives. Tech donors spent more than $1 million on campaigns, and tech trade groups became more vocal in local politics.

Big Tech’s interest in the election attracted attention from some of the biggest names in national politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders took the unusual step of endorsing candidates for Seattle City Council in a rebuff of Amazon. He doubled down on those efforts on Election Day, tweeting his support for candidates running against CASE’s picks.

Sanders volunteers texted Seattle voters urging them to vote for Herbold, Morales, Sawant, and Shaun Scott, according to The Seattle Times.


Tech workers across the board spent more on this election than they have in the past too. More than 300 Amazon employees donated a total of about $143,000 to Seattle candidates and political action committees this election cycle, as of Nov. 1. In the 2015 election, about 70 Amazon employees contributed a total of about $17,000.

Contributions from employees at Microsoft, which is based outside Seattle in Redmond, Wash., were more modest. They totaled about $40,000 from approximately 200 employees. That’s about double what Microsoft employees spent in the 2015 election.

Tech’s financial contributions rankled many on left. Several candidates and members of the Seattle City Council held a demonstration at Amazon’s headquarters to protest corporate money in politics. Councilmember Lorena González has introduced legislation that would cap donations to political action committees in Seattle at $5,000, challenging an interpretation of the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court case.

But tech didn’t just open its purse strings for the City Council races. Tech donors spent more than $1.4 million on a campaign to defeat Initiative 976, a proposal to cap car registration fees in Washington state that would slash funding for transit projects. Microsoft contributed $650,000 to defeat the initiative and Amazon donated $400,000.

Despite opposition from the tech industry, progressives, the current City Council, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan I-976 was passing with 54 percent of the early voters approving the initiative.

A referendum that would allow affirmative action in Washington state also had backing from the tech industry. With 51 percent of votes, Referendum 88 was leaning toward rejection in initial results.

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