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For generations, Seattle city council elections were low-budget affairs that rarely broke into six-figure territory.
Then Amazon moved in.
Now the company is dumping more money into a political action committee aimed at influencing next month's city council elections than any other group has ever spent on city politics, in a move that liberals say is an attempt to hijack the vote.
Amazon said Tuesday it would donate an additional $1 million into a PAC run by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, bringing the company's investment in November's elections to $1.5 million. That money is mindblowing in an election in which individuals can contribute just $500 each to most candidates.
The Seattle Times first reported Amazon's late contribution, just three weeks before Election Day.
At issue is a battle last year between the city council and large corporations headquartered in Seattle. Those corporations objected to a council-passed head tax, a $275-per-employee tax on businesses that generated more than $20 million in revenue in order to help solve the city's growing homelessness crisis.
Amazon, the largest employer in the city, threatened to pull thousands of new jobs in other locations. The company paused construction of a new building and began publicly exploring options to sublease thousands of square feet of downtown office space.
The city council folded and repealed the tax after about a month.
This year, three incumbents are running for re-election, including one, Kshama Sawant, who voted against repealing the head tax. Four open seat races are being fought between two candidates who won the most votes in the August 6 election. Amazon is working to make sure the new council looks more favorably on Seattle's largest private employer.
"We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle," Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said in an email. "We believe it is critical that our hometown has a city council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety."
Liberal groups that back some of the city council members who voted to keep the head tax said Amazon's contribution amounted to a vote-buying scheme.
"One of the richest corporations in the world just invested an unprecedented amount of money to attempt a hostile takeover of Seattle’s local government," said Rachel Lauter, who heads Working Washington, a member of a coalition of liberal groups funded by unions and the progressive tech billionaire Nick Hanauer.
"This isn't just about Seattle, it's about the 2020 national elections. Amazon is warning presidential candidates who say they share Seattle's values that it will stop at nothing to protect its power and profits," Lauter said.
Amazon's favored political action committee, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, has raised more than $3 million this year – about 30 percent of all the money raised by candidates and groups spending on the 2019 election, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
The PAC is also funded by Vulcan, the holding company once owned by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; the Washington Association of Realtors; and longtime Seattle mega-corporations like Boeing, Expedia and Starbucks.
Those companies all objected to the head tax, which would have fallen on the shoulders of about 580 Seattle businesses. Amazon's $1.5 million investment is just a fraction of what the tax would have cost the company -- about $14 million a year, less than two-tenths of a percent of the company's $10.1 billion in profits in 2018, and less than two-one hundredths of the $108 billion that Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosWhy Democrats opposing Biden's tax plan have it wrong Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Foundations pledge billion in record funding for biodiversity MORE is worth.
Several other Amazon executives have contributed to another political action committee, People for Seattle, that is funded by some of the wealthiest business executives in Seattle.
By contrast, four political action committees funded by unions and Hanauer have raised a combined $1.3 million.
Sawant, a self-proclaimed socialist and one of the candidates the Amazon-funded PAC is opposing, called the company's late contribution "a flagrant move to blow up Seattle's democratic process."
"This attempt of a hostile, right-wing takeover is utterly unconscionable," Sawant said in a statement. "We cannot allow Bezos to buy this election."
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