In campaign stop near Amazon, Elizabeth Warren avoids confronting tech giant on breakup plan

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Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally Sunday in Seattle with an estimated 15,000 people in attendance. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for stronger antitrust enforcement and a wealth tax at a Seattle rally, drawing cheers from a crowd that her campaign estimated to be 15,000 people Sunday afternoon.

“The problem we’ve got is the giant corporations have just gotten bigger and they have so much power,” the Democratic presidential candidate said during her public remarks at Seattle Center, with the Space Needle and an American flag behind her. She added: “How about we get a president who’s got the courage to enforce the antitrust laws?”

FOLLOW-UP: We persisted through Sen. Warren’s four-hour selfie marathon to ask about Amazon and big tech

But despite the location — just a few blocks from Amazon’s headquarters and large engineering centers for Facebook and Google — Warren didn’t explicitly discuss her headline-grabbing proposal to break up and more closely regulate Amazon and other big tech companies. She did acknowledge Amazon once by name, making a passing reference to the company’s warehouses when describing the country’s immigration detention centers.

“Think of a giant Amazon warehouse, only it’s dirty and smells bad,” she said during the event.

Nor did Warren cite Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, two Seattle-area residents who are among the world’s wealthiest people, during remarks about her proposed wealth tax on the country’s “bazillionaires.” Warren’s plan is to implement a 2 percent annual tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million, and 3 percent on fortunes worth more than $1 billion.

At her rally in Seattle, Warren did not talk about her much-discussed plan to break up big tech companies. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Warren did give a shout-out to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who attended the rally, describing her as a “progressive mayor for a progressive city.” Durkan has faced criticism for what opponents say is sympathetic treatment of Amazon, particularly during the debate over the city’s planned head tax on big companies to fund homelessness services, which was dropped amid opposition from Amazon and other businesses.

The town hall was introduced by state Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, who works at Microsoft. The Redmond tech giant, which fought its own antitrust battles during the Clinton administration, has largely escaped the recent regulatory scrutiny leveled against Amazon, Facebook and Google by Warren and others in the past year.

“We shouldn’t get to the point where something is too big to fail,” Nguyen said when asked about Warren’s plan following the event. “We need to be able to be in a space where we govern and also have a society that works for everybody and not just for folks who are trying to suck up the most amount of resources.”

Warren, who has landed in the top tier of the Democratic primary as her poll numbers have steadily risen throughout the summer, also did not address big tech companies in a brief gaggle with reporters after the town hall.

She did say she has talked to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a presidential candidate who recently dropped out amid fledgling poll numbers, calling it a “good conversation” on regulatory changes and other issues. She applauded Inslee during the event, calling him “one of the finest governors in America,” and crediting him with pushing climate change into the party’s discourse.

Warren’s campaign said Washington is the 27th state she has visited during her run. She’s not the first Democrat eyeing the White House to visit the Evergreen State recently.

Former Vice President Joe Biden attended a pair of private fundraisers in June. Co-hosts of those events included Microsoft President Brad Smith, Microsoft VP for European Union affairs John Frank, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, and Microsoft lobbyist Michael Mattmiller.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg also fundraised privately in Seattle last month. Startup entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has made technology a focus of his longshot bid for the presidency, held a public rally at Gasworks Park in May in which he railed against Amazon for playing an outsize role in reshaping the economy, while paying no federal income tax the past two years.

The U.S. Justice Department last month launched a sweeping antitrust probe, with top tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google likely under the microscope. Amazon has emerged as a particular target for Democrats running for president because income inequality is a key focus of the race. Bezos is the richest person in history thanks to the company’s growth. That fact, coupled with Amazon’s tax practices and online retail prowess, has put a target on the company’s back.

At a March event in Long Island City, New York — not long after Amazon canceled plans to put one of its “HQ2” projects there — Warren introduced her plan to undo some tech mergers, along with a proposal to prohibit companies from both offering a marketplace for commerce and participating in that marketplace. Amazon’s third-party marketplace is one of those she proposes to target.

Logan Bowers, a former Seattle City Council candidate who used to work for Amazon, said Warren is his favorite candidate because “I just trust her to make the right decisions.” He’s wary of how to break up large tech companies such as Google effectively, though.

“The devil is in the details,” he said.

Another woman attending the event was asked about her thoughts on Warren’s tech policies and she responded, “What tech policies?”

Garrett Davis, who is undecided in the Democratic primary, is against breaking up big tech companies in part because he believes it is not plausible.

“I’ve yet to see anyone articulate a clear vision for what a broken up Facebook would do,” Davis said on Sunday. He added that he’s not sure Amazon holds a monopoly anyway.

Similar to Warren, Rik Keller, a campaign volunteer, said that the country has antitrust laws for a reason, but they aren’t being used. “Capitalism is out of control and there is government to help with that,” Keller argued, noting that he’s not advocating for socialism. He added: “I’m suspicious of oligarchies, they don’t usually serve the working people.”

This was the most widely attended Warren event of the campaign, beating out a crowd of about 12,000 this past Monday. Thousands of them waited for hours to take a selfie with Warren afterward, a signature feature of her campaign. As she snapped a picture with one supporter, the campaign announced that it was the 50,000th selfie she had taken during the campaign.

When one rally goer started her question to the senator with the premise, “When you’re president,” Warren interrupted her to revel in the possibility.

“I like that,” she said. “Just say that first word again.”

Updated on Aug. 26 with comments from Sen. Joe Nguyen.

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