Three weeks before the elections for Seattle city council, moderate candidates appeared to be poised for victory. An opinion poll from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce showed widespread discontent with the existing council. Voters in every district told pollsters that Seattle was on the “wrong track,” and they expressed an unfavorable opinion of city leadership. According to the conventional wisdom, this would be a “change election” that pitted a slate of moderate, business-backed candidates against progressives and socialists who promised to revive the failed “Amazon tax” and to impose rent control, legalize homeless camping, and even abolish the Seattle Police Department. The business community, united with moderate Democrats, neighborhood groups, and public-safety unions, appeared successfully to have framed the election as a choice between a “dangerous, divisive status quo” and a “return to responsible government.”
But just as ballots were going out, Amazon, believing that victory was within reach, made the mistake of contributing another $1 million to the Chamber’s political action committee—and the entire narrative collapsed. Suddenly, the local election was nationalized, with figures including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren decrying Amazon’s “out-of-control corporate greed” and promoting the message that the Internet retailer was “trying to tilt the Seattle City Council elections in their favor.” The progressive and socialist candidates capitalized on this change, reframing the election as a choice between Amazon and the #Resistance. All substantive criticisms of the council on homelessness, public safety, and economic policy disappeared from public discourse. Within days, the referendum on a failed city council had been transformed into a referendum on corporate power.
Given this choice, Seattle voters turned out for the progressive-socialist slate. All but one of the most progressive candidates won their districts—including Trotskyist incumbent Kshama Sawant, who demands the nationalization of Boeing and Amazon, and Democratic Socialists of America-affiliated candidate Tammy Morales. Seattle elected its most liberal city council in history, leaving the business-moderate coalition—which outspent its opponents by a margin of 4-to-1—in tatters.
The progressive-socialist alliance has wasted no time laying out an ambitious agenda. It includes ordinances for rent control, drug-consumption sites, decriminalization of prostitution, legalization of homeless encampments, defunding critical police programs, free public transit, and an array of new taxes, including a “mansion tax,” “excess compensation tax,” and an “Amazon tax” three times larger than the original levy that was repealed last year. Amazon tried to unseat Seattle’s progressive regime, but the progressives have only strengthened their hold on municipal power—and now they’re out for revenge.
The failed “Amazon tax revolt” reveals a broader lesson for business. Ten years ago, Amazon was hailed as an innovator for building high rises in the heart of a major American city, with hopes of attracting younger talent. Companies like Microsoft, which built its suburban campus decades ago in Redmond, Washington, were seen as passé and unable to attract millennials into the workforce. As the recent election reveals, however, urban campuses come with a downside: urban politics. While the small-town city council in Redmond caters to Microsoft’s needs, the city council in Seattle could pose an existential threat to Amazon, which owns billions in real estate and employs more than 40,000 people in the city.
Amazon may be reconsidering its “back to the city” movement. The company has recently embarked on a shopping spree for major real estate in nearby Bellevue, Washington, leading to speculation that it might downsize its Seattle presence — or at least use the threat of departure as leverage against the city council. Either way, the next few years promise more conflict between business-friendly and progressive-socialist political power blocs. Seattle voters will have ringside seats.