Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Four things that are different after Amazon’s step into local elections

This 2019 election in Seattle was something else. I’m not sure anyone quite has a coherent theory of what ultimately took place in a way that weaves together all of the various threads of this election cycle story.

But one story line appears to be generally well accepted now that we are almost a week from Election Day: Amazon didn’t have the impact it had hoped to.

The $1.4m in spending that got so much attention didn’t exactly pay the dividends the company had, I’m sure, hoped. It was spun easily and quickly by Amazon’s targets to the point that even those backed by Amazon were walking away from the support.

I think there are four subtle but potentially consequential takeaways from Amazon’s engagement in the 2019 Seattle city council races. Let me explain.

1. Being anti-corporate is now a winner in Seattle politics.

That wasn’t clear when the head tax conversation was taking place. There were a lot of folks that sided with Amazon during that process, enough that it made the “head tax” seem a bit of a stretch.

Mayor Durkan was looking to split the difference. Local voices were saying it was “brainless.” Even the construction trades were out in opposition to it. Ultimately, the head tax was repealed shortly after it was passed.

That seems so quaint now, the idea that there was an ethos in Seattle politics that allowed for a “go slow” progressivism. The election seems to have done away with that notion as almost all of the council elections produced a leftward shift.

Instead, city politics has unified the left-of-center with anti-corporatism. Not anti-business, mind you. This is a distinction that is often lost. Small businesses are often still considered a welcome part of city life and public policy.

But large corporations, those are now free game for anyone on the left – from center to the extreme – in Seattle city politics. Piling on may or may not be good policy, but it’s increasingly apparent it is good politics.

2. The space between Seattle liberalism and Sawant socialism has closed.

This space has a long history in Seattle politics. Socialists and Democrats have been at odds since the 1940s in Seattle. They have never been aligned politically, either on policy or philosophy.

For example, when Socialist Kshama Sawant first ran for office, she talked about nationalizing Boeing while Democratic legislators had otherwise been doling out tax breaks to the manufacturer.

But, as a result of Amazon’s spending, Council Members Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez endorsed Sawant, after having spent months on the sideline of the race. Mosqueda and Gonzalez are both Democrats, not Socialists.

Gonzalez put it simply, explaining that being any type of left-of-center meant needing to stand together against Amazon.

With Amazon fighting all of us, it’s not about whether you’re a Democrat or a socialist. What matters is our movement, our call to build a more just city, fundamentally built on our progressive values.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña is another progressive voice that hadn’t otherwise endorsed Sawant until Amazon got involved. In fact, it was Amazon’s specific engagement that led to Saldaña’s endorsement. She’s a rising star in Seattle progressive circles, but she’s a Democrat, not a socialist.

It’s not okay that one oversized company, Amazon, thinks it can buy our city’s election. Democracy of and for the people matters. That is why I am supporting Kshama.

Rep. Nicole Macri is another strong progressive voice but, again, not one that had endorsed in Sawant’s race until Amazon got involved, and not one that has openly embraced socialism. Macri even recognized that she’s not always aligned with Sawant politically, but that she saw that there were more similarities than differences in the face of Amazon’s expenditures.

We may not agree on everything, but Kshama is always willing to discuss tough issues and to listen… Now is the time to send a clear message that our city is not for sale to corporate interests like Amazon.

Nevertheless, each of these Democratic leaders felt siding with Sawant was the best way to represent their respective communities, regardless of the policy space between Seattle progressivism and Trotskyite socialism.

Amazon has closed a gap that was otherwise in place for generations of Seattle politics.

3. Sawant is now a legitimate candidate for mayor – or governor

Don’t take what has happened here for granted. I know Sawant only ran in a district and not city-wide. But she won city wide six years ago with an arguably more leftist platform. And, in two years time, things are not likely to moderate in Seattle elections. They will be even better for her brand of politics, which is now more mainstream than ever (see bullet 1 and 2).

She is positioned well to make the general election in a 2021 campaign for mayor. That may be a year where partisan orthodoxy limits any challengers to the incumbent. In that case, she’s likely to be one on one against Jenny Durkan running for re-election.

Or, it will be a year where there are a number of candidates in the primary, like this year’s council races. In that case, she’s likely have an irreducible minimum level of support that compels her to the general amidst a field of less leftist candidates that otherwise divide the field.

Moreover, it may even be possible that a crowded field pushes out Durkan in the primary (see Greg Nickels, 2009), leaving Sawant as a potential favorite.

Once she is one on one in the general election, anything can happen (see 2019 elections).

That’s also why she’s a potential force for governor.

With four Republicans currently running, they’re likely to divide about 40-44% of the vote in the top-two primary.

If a second Democratic candidate gets in the race, he/she will split the remaining 56-60% of the vote with Gov. Inslee.

Inslee would probably pull about 35-40% of that vote. But there is a strong chance that this motivated, progressive, now socialist voter in Seattle (and beyond) could give Sawant about 20% of the statewide primary vote.

That primary ballot would have one woman and five men; one person of color and five caucasians, one economic progressive and five mainstream economic views. You think that person draws less than 20%? Hard to see it.

That would put Sawant and Inslee in the general election, where – again – anything could happen.

If you don’t think this can happen, look up the 2016 state treasurer race, where three Democrats divided the vote against two Republicans. Two Republicans moved forward to the general, allowing for only the third Republican statewide office holder on the west coast.

If current trends hold, two progressives in the general is possible – perhaps even probable.

4. This isn’t how to do politics well, Amazon, but you’re one step closer to getting it right

The Seattle elections were bad for Amazon. They galvanized the left against it in Seattle, and even drew condemnation from some of the leading candidates for president, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

This is on the heels of political missteps with HQ2, the JEDI loss to Microsoft, the “tech tax” it didn’t see coming in the last legislative session, and the head tax debate.

Todd Bishop is the co-founder of Geekwire who follows Amazon closely. He said recently that, when it comes to Amazon and politics, “they’re just not good at it.”

They’ve used up a lot of capital that they otherwise might have had by default. It’s going to be tougher, and they’re going to have to be much, much better at it (political engagement) than they are to get back to even a neutral place in the public eye.

Amazon has some strong policy and public relations folks on their team. In fact, they are some of the most well regarded professionals in the state.

But successful local and state politics requires consistent engagement across a range of areas and topics – not just when your direct interests are at stake.

You gotta give to the symphony, fund some clean water projects, provide Alexas in every classroom in the state. Show that you’re engaged in the community because it’s important to you, and not just because it’s campaign season.

Like when Jeff Bezos gave $2.5m to the marriage equality campaign in 2012. That was gold for PR. It showed what, in this case Bezos but the company by extension, cared about and did it in a way that was aligned with its urban community of employees and consumers.

Amazon will get very good at politics. But it’ll take an authentic commitment to community in way that hasn’t been demonstrated in recent years. The setback of the 2019 elections means Amazon is one step closer to figuring it out.