SEATTLE – "Amazon Tests 'Soul of Seattle,'" The New York Timesexclaimed in a late-October headline, detailing the company’s $1.45 million money dump into a political action committee trying to send a slate of business-friendly candidates to the second floor of City Hall.
Two years earlier, The Times ran an editorial by Seattle-based writer Timothy Egan. It was titled “How Amazon Took Seattle’s Soul.” He warned other cities to proceed with caution as they courted the company’s second headquarters, known as HQ2.
“Long before the mad dash to land the second headquarters for the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon found us,” he wrote. “Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by a future we never had any say over.”
“You think you can shape Amazon?” he asked. “Not a chance. It will shape you.”
Seattle voters beg to differ.
As ballots were counted in the November 5 election, the “soul of Seattle” came into focus. Voters had reshaped City Hall – and not in Amazon’s image.
Of seven Seattle City Council seats up for election, Amazon-backed candidates captured only two.
In District 4, Northeast Seattle voters elected Alex Pedersen, who defeated Democratic Socialist Shaun Scott, a political newcomer. Pedersen’s effort was aided by $66,148 in spending from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce-backed PAC Amazon donated to. A second seat could also be considered a victory for Amazon. Incumbent Councilwoman Debora Juarez, friendly to both business and labor, won reelection in District 5.
Pending official certification, labor-backed candidates won the five remaining positions, creating a progressive super-majority. The two citywide council members whose seats were not on the ballot in November – Councilwomen Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda – fall firmly on the side of labor.
Make that Amazon 2, Labor 7.
Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the chamber PAC, asked for harmony after the last big ballot drop failed to fall in its favor Friday.
“There is a lot of work ahead on issues like homelessness, affordability, transportation, and public safety. These are long-term issues that require long-term partnership. How our local government chooses to partner – or create division – matters. That is why we engaged in these elections, and the Chamber and the business community are as committed as ever to our region’s civic future.”
Seattle’s new council may not be so quick to forgive and forget.
Councilwoman Gonzalez will soon introduce legislation to limit corporate spending in local elections – setting up a possible challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that government limitation of independent expenditures violates the First Amendment.
“This is gap in our electoral democratic process,” Gonzalez said. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to fix that gap.”
Given the fate of candidates Amazon supported with its money, Jeff Bezos may not lose sleep over restrictions on future political contributions in Seattle.
But then there is Kshama Sawant.
The Socialist councilwoman’s reelection campaign was by far the most followed narrative in the fight for the “soul of Seattle.” CASE spent $445,207 hoping to unseat her.
Instead, Sawant – who has made taxing Amazon the perennial promise of her political career – staged a stunning comeback after falling nearly 9 points behind chamber-backed opponent Egan Orion on election night.
In late ballot returns, nearly 60% of District 3 votes dropped in Sawant’s favor. By Friday, what looked like sure defeat transformed into certain victory.
Sawant will return to the Seattle City Council as its senior member – laser focused on the company that tried to take her down.
During a victory speech Saturday, Sawant supporters held a massive banner emblazoned with her signature red and white “TAX AMAZON” slogan.
On social media, outside election watchers were incredulous over Sawant’s apparent victory.
“She is truly a menace in a bad way,” a commenter from Maple Valley wrote. “I don’t understand how some just can’t seem to see that.”
Others questioned whether Sawant cheated the system, an accusation for which there is no evidence.
“Magically enough ballots will be 'turned in' for her to win,” one said.
“I don't live in Seattle and I am so glad,” wrote another.
In recent years, Seattle's biggest challenges have only deepened, spreading into neighboring cities and seeding anger toward a political philosophy some outsiders see as extreme and ineffective.
As the Emerald City espouses values of empathy and inclusion, thousands sleep on the streets each night – many in the throes of a drug or mental health crisis. The gap between rich and poor has exploded. Housing prices have made home ownership unattainable for the middle class. Traffic has snarled. All of it under increasingly progressive leadership.
If surrounding counties hoped November’s election would open the door to a new era of leadership in the state’s biggest metropolis, that hope was quickly dashed.
Seattle has always been on a political island – but this week it filled the moat with alligators and raised the bridge. In doing so, it has decided to take control of its own fate – for better or worse.
Seattleites had a clear choice on November 5: Elect a new, more moderate council, or double down on the city’s progressive prominence.
They chose the latter.
Voters – not Amazon – have decided what Seattle’s soul will look like – and they don’t care if you’re disappointed.