Amazon dumps record $1.45M into city council races, but will it backfire?

SEATTLE -- Hoping to persuade voters into electing a more moderate slate of candidates, Seattle-based Amazon has dumped a record $1.45 million into local city council races – more than a single entity in any previous Seattle election.

The money went to a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-backed PAC aimed at electing business-friendly candidates.

But in the weeks since Amazon’s money dump, some of those meant to benefit from the investment have denounced it – worried about the optics of being labeled a corporate-backed candidate in Progressive Seattle.

“The influx of PAC money in City politics this year is completely out of scale with the grassroots campaign myself and many others are trying to run, and is proving to be a distraction from the real issues,” said Egan Orion, who is taking on Seattle’s Socialist city councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, in District 3.

Orion has garnered support from the Chamber, which hopes to oust Sawant – who led the push for a tax on jobs that would have hit Amazon and other companies hard. The tax was passed, only to be quickly repealed under mounting pressure from the business community.

“A lot of this spending is clearly driven by a frustration felt across the city – from seniors and young renters to unions and businesses large and small, that we need change on the City Council,” Orion said. “If elected, I will absolutely pursue policies to limit outside spending and bring balance to our civic elections."

Similarly, chamber-backed candidate Alex Pedersen, running against Democratic-Socialist Shaun Scott in District 4, tried to distance himself from Amazon’s support.

“Let me be clear: the big money from PACs is absolutely NOT needed or welcome because doorbelling, professional experience, and a focus on results are what really matter to voters,” Pedersen said in a statement on October 24.

Two 2020 presidential contenders – Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – have also decried Amazon’s spending in Seattle.

“The way Amazon conducts itself in its hometown is a perfect example of the out-of-control corporate greed we are going to end,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

Sunday on “The Divide,” Seattle Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Strickland rejected the idea that Amazon’s investment would backfire.

“At the end of the day we need money to win elections,” Strickland said. “I tell folks that in the City of Seattle, for the longest time, you’ve had a lot of the big labor groups pour lots and lots of money into races. So, what’s really happening right now is we’re leveling the field.”

Seattle Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, whose seat is not on the ballot this cycle, said she will introduce legislation to limit corporate money in local races – spurred in part by Amazon’s big donation.

“Seattle voters have the constitutional right to free and fair elections without the out-seized and unfettered influence of corporations,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “My proposed legislation would rein in corporate influence and ensure that the voices of working people, families, and voters are legally protected.”

Strickland questioned whether Gonzalez's proposal would focus solely on corporate money, or include labor spending as well.

“If you want to limit the influence of outside money in elections, then be fair about it and limit all the money," Strickland said. "You can’t pick a sector or pick a company. If you want to get rid of it all, be fair about it and be consistent. You can’t pick or choose and cherry pick because a group is supporting a candidate you don’t like.”

Responding to Strickland's concerns, Gonzalez said it's not realistic to compare business and labor spending.

"Comparing labor unions and corporations is a false equivalency; as false as saying that the boss and a worker are the same," Gonzalez told Q13 News. "Unions are different than corporations. Union political activity is funded by thousands of workers making small donations to build collective power for people. CEO-funded PACs are a small group of wealthy individuals cutting huge checks to purchase direct access to politicians.”

Matt Smith, a Sawant campaign volunteer who also works delivering packages for an Amazon contractor, said Gonzalez's legislation is necessary to give a voice back to working people.

“Me and my coworkers, we’re calling on Amazon to stop all their donations to corporate PACS and give employees a voice in the political decisions of the company,” he said. “That’s really what I want to see for this city, is see the voice of working people amplified. That’s who runs this city. That’s who makes this city work and worth living in.”

During an interview on “Q13 News This Morning” Monday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said she supports steps to limit corporate influence in local elections, but does not believe Gonzalez’s proposed legislation would withstand a test in the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling found that government restriction on independent expenditures violated the First Amendment.

“I think we need to take corporate money out of politics, period. Citizens United needs to be repealed,” Durkan said.

But until then – Durkan believes Gonzalez’s legislation would only serve to send a message.

“Part of the problem is we know that’s not constitutional,” Durkan said. “I think we’ve got to propose solutions – not bumper stickers.”