Will Amazon’s $1.45M bid to shake up Seattle politics backfire, or work exactly as planned?

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Demonstrators protest Amazon’s spending on the Seattle City Council races. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon took a million-dollar gamble this week, betting a last-minute cash infusion will help elect a new Seattle City Council despite the inevitable backlash to the contribution.

It’s a risky move that has already emboldened Amazon’s biggest critics in Seattle government. Whether the gamble will pay off on election day remains to be seen.

We discuss Amazon’s $1 million donation to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee this week on the GeekWire podcast. Amazon’s total contribution to the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) is $1.45 million, a colossal amount to spend on a local election and a big political statement.

Amazon said it made the donation “because we care deeply about the future of Seattle” and believes it’s “critical that our hometown has a city council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety.”

But the donation quickly energized Amazon critics on the Seattle City Council and candidates in the running. They organized a press conference at Amazon’s headquarters accusing the company of trying to buy the election. The same officials are also leading a protest at Amazon’s home base next week.

“Let’s remember what’s at stake on election night,” said Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant at the press conference. “What will be at stake is who gets to run Seattle, big business and their corporate stooges or ordinary working people and those of us who share our vision of social justice for our city.”

Other politicians, activists, and some Amazon employees expressed their frustration online.

University of Washington technology historian Margaret O’Mara isn’t all that surprised by Amazon’s last-minute donation. She said it’s a page out of the Amazon playbook, noting that the company paused construction on a Seattle office tower in opposition to a tax on big business and pulled out of a planned headquarters in New York when officials pushed back on the proposal.

“The big late-stage donation is kind of a statement that’s parallel to the moment when they stopped construction on the tower during the head tax debate,” she said. “Amazon has already shown itself unafraid to play hardball.”

CASE’s City Council endorsements include just one incumbent. The political action committee is calling for a change of leadership and backing candidates seen as more business-friendly than the current City Council, which has passed some of the most progressive policies in the nation.

Candidates running against CASE’s picks are using the Amazon donation to rally support for their campaigns. Sawant emailed her supporters with an urgent message on Wednesday. “We need to fight back by raising $20,000 by this Friday, when ballots arrive,” the email said. Sawant called Amazon’s donation “a flagrant attempt to blow up Seattle’s democratic process.”

Shaun Scott, another democratic socialist candidate, called for volunteers to canvass and stand up to Amazon.

Though the donation ignited fierce opposition, $1.45 million still goes a long way.

“It’s a lot of money,” O’Mara said. “Money will help but it makes Amazon a very convenient foil for the candidates that are running against tech in general, or growth, or the negative effects of growth.”

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