Amazon tried to remove a Seattle City Councilmember and lost. Here’s how she describes taking on and defeating one of the world’s biggest companies.

  • Amazon spent $1.45 million on lobbying efforts in the recent Seattle City Council election.
  • Amazon’s primary target was Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has loudly and consistently criticized Amazon’s impact on its home town. The money went to a political action committee that supported candidates with business-friendly policies.
  • Despite Amazon’s lobbying and large political donation, Sawant won re-election.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, Sawant explained what it’s like to take on one of the world’s biggest companies – and win.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

To Amazon, $1.45 million isn’t much money – a rounding error on the billions in revenue the retail giant brings in every year. Apply that $1.45 million to the Seattle City Council elections, however, and it’s a far more significant sum.

Of the seven Seattle city districts with races in 2019, most candidates received under $200,000 in donations. But in Seattle’s third district, campaign contributions more than doubled that amount.

That’s because of Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a Seattle politician who’s notoriously critical of Amazon’s impact on Seattle.

Amazon gave $1.45 million to a political action committee, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which lobbies on behalf of Seattle’s business groups – the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. And that PAC financially backed Sawant’s opponent, Egan Orion, who received over $400,000 in campaign contributions.

Despite the infusion of Amazon cash, Sawant won re-election to Seattle’s City Council. She also raised over half a million dollars in campaign donations.

“This year’s election – my second reelection – is historically significant because this time when we ran, we had very openly the entire business elite, the entire capitalist class in Seattle represented by multinational corporations, billionaires, millionaires, the uber-wealthy of this region, absolutely going to battle to try and defeat us,” Sawant said in a phone interview with Business Insider last week.

Sawant is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but a self-described Socialist. She’s a member of the activist organization Socialist Alternative. She’s critical of both major political parties, and especially critical of the corporate behemoths that dominate the Seattle area.

“When you have a few corporations that are disproportionately more powerful in terms of their wealth and clout and political influence …. when you have that kind of deep chasm of political resources and wealth, that’s when you see a city where – despite its historic level levels of wealth – you also see unprecedented levels of inequality,” she said.

To that end, Sawant’s political platform has largely been in opposition to Amazon.

In 2013, she helped pass legislation that increased Seattle’s minimum wage to $15/hour – the first major city in the US to do as much. Though Amazon initially resisted, the company eventually gave in and instituted a company-wide $15/hour minimum rule.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world.

caption
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world.
source
David Ryder/Getty Images

In 2018, she pushed for a new tax on corporations intended to address increasingly dire affordable-housing problems in Seattle.

The head tax would’ve cost $275 per employee for companies with revenues exceeding $20 million annually – companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing. And the revenues from that tax were intended to fund efforts to fix the affordable housing crisis.

So the logic goes: As tech companies like Amazon attract higher-paid workers to cities like Seattle, those workers increase the cost of living. One of the costs of living that’s most directly impacted is affordable housing, through simple supply-and-demand economics. As new workers move in, housing stock decreases while demand increases, resulting in higher prices for fewer places. The end result for Seattle has been a homelessness crisis.

“People are being priced out of very basic housing,” Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, told WUSA9 in February. “We have so many people that have fallen into homelessness, or at the very edge of becoming homeless because of rent increases … they are literally being squeezed out of the home that they have lived in for 10-20 years.”

Though the new tax initially passed, Amazon pushed back and got it killed. How? By halting construction of a new tower in downtown Seattle and helping fund a campaign against the tax which ultimately convinced enough councilmembers to vote for a repeal.

Sawant was one of two City Councilmembers to vote against its repeal – “a stark example of Amazon and billionaires and the Chamber of Commerce pushing for legislation their way,” Sawant said.

In 2019, Sawant has continued to advocate for policies that address the city’s ongoing housing problem.

A key slogan from her re-election campaign took aim directly at the city’s most well-known company: “TAX AMAZON! Affordable Housing for All!”

But Amazon isn’t the only big corporation based in the Seattle metropolitan area. Microsoft and Boeing both have a major presence in the region, with the latter being the area’s largest employer by far.

To that end, Sawant explained, slogans like “TAX AMAZON!” only represent a symptom of a bigger problem.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to, just from a standpoint of scientific analysis, to just say that [Seattle’s affordable housing crisis] is because of Amazon,” Sawant said. “Amazon is an example of what happens under Capitalism where the policy making of the city – when it’s dominated by a political establishment that’s tied to big business – what you see is primarily the city’s policies being driven by the agenda of big business. And what does that mean? That means that Amazon has gotten – Jeff Bezos has gotten – to keep this city a corporate tax haven,” she said.

Amazon made headlines for paying $0 in federal taxes two years in a row, and reportedly paid about $250 million in state and local taxes in 2017.

One proposal for Amazon's

caption
One proposal for Amazon’s “HQ2” in Long Island City, Queens. The deal ultimately fell through amid pushback from NYC politicians.
source
NYCEDC

During its search for a second headquarters (“HQ2”), Amazon demanded massive tax breaks from city governments that wanted the retail giant to choose them. One such deal with New York City to put HQ2 in Queens ultimately fell apart amid complaints from local politicians that the multi-billion dollar company was getting $3 billion in tax breaks from the state.

Without this kind of pushback from politicians representing concerned constituents, Sawant said, manifestations of inequality could get much worse.

“That is why it was so important for us to defeat Jeff Bezos in his attempt to take over City Hall this year,” she said. “Had we not, then the narrative would have been that big business can incompletely root out any progressive attempts towards, you know, towards making our cities affordable.”

Amazon representatives declined to comment for this story.