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As Amazon becomes more politically active, will its $1M donation backfire in Seattle?

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this Oct. 23 photo, a campaign poster for Seattle City Council incumbent Kshama Sawant is posted outside her campaign headquarters. Seven of the nine council seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election, where Amazon has donated $1.5 million.

Seven of the nine Seattle City Council positions are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election. Amazon recently donated $1 million to the political action committee for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The goal is to promote candidates seen as more business friendly.

The move has generated a lot of opposition and drawn national attention to the council races. Monica Nickelsburg has been covering the story for GeekWire and talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick.


Nickelsburg said the $1 million donation is the latest big step in a recent shift by Amazon to become more politically active.

"It's interesting because, for the first couple of decades, Amazon really kept their heads down, didn't say a lot publicly," Nickelsburg said. "It was sort of a fortress. But in the past few years they have definitely shifted gears." 

A big moment in that political shift happened in 2018, when the Seattle City Council approved a so-called head tax.

"The head tax certainly changed the conversation here, locally, but Amazon is also under a lot of scrutiny at the federal level, (like) the anti-trust inquiries," Nickelsburg said. "I think that, more broadly, they've realized that it's no longer very effective to just focus on the product, just focus on the customer and that they do need to, kind of, take a more active role in telling their story."


Nickelsburg said the head tax would have affected the top-grossing Seattle companies, especially Amazon, on a per-employee basis. So, she added, critics called it a "tax on jobs."

"The money that was raised through that tax was going to fund affordable housing and homeless services," she said, "which are two pretty critical needs in Seattle right now."

Amazon's reaction to the proposal was swift and strong: "They stopped construction on one of their big skyscrapers downtown, threatened not to move in to another one and just said, generally, that this kind of attitude from city leaders made them question their growth in Seattle."


Nickelsburg said she thinks Amazon's involvement in this year's Seattle City Council elections is more than just a response to the head tax battle.

"This is a company that's willing to make bold statements with its actions, so that makes this not so surprising," she said. "But, on the other hand, it's a pretty important election, so I think that Amazon is looking at this as a unique opportunity while it's still part of this broader trend of more engagement."

Amazon employees rally in downtown Seattle Oct. 24 against the company's $1M donation to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's political action committee.
Credit Rebekah Way / KNKX
Amazon employees rally in downtown Seattle on Oct. 24 against the company's $1 million donation to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's political action committee.


Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have voiced opposition to the Amazon donation. And some employees held a rally against it last week.

"It's been a pretty strong opposition. Definitely a rallying cry for the opponents of the candidates that are endorsed by the political action committee that Amazon is donating to," Nickelsburg said. "Amazon says that this is just part of its desire to see a change in leadership and more pragmatic solutions to the problems that Seattle faces."


Nickelsburg says it's possible Amazon’s strategy could backfire.

“We've already seen the candidates I mentioned using this as a rallying cry, as a way to raise more money and get more canvassing volunteers to come out,” she said. Nickelsburg added that it’s led council members to endorse their colleagues on the City Council, such as Teresa Mosqueda’s support of Kshama Sawant. "It's kind of become a unifier on the very far left in Seattle that says, 'Whether or not we agree on the solutions, we can agree that we don't want this kind of money influencing our election."

Nickelsburg said the candidates who benefit from the Amazon donation have been cautious in their response. Some have called it a distraction.

"It's not like they're welcoming this donation with open arms because they recognize that it is a pretty fraught issue, and they don't want to be seen as in the back pocket of the chamber's political action committee or Amazon."


Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.