Amazon Spent $1.5 Million Trying to Buy a City Council Seat

Amazon spent $1.5 million to beat Kshama Sawant and back its approved candidates. It may have ended up unifying its opposition.
Kshama Sawant, target of Amazon's attempt to buy Seattle City Council

Let's not mince words: Amazon tried to buy Kshama Sawant’s Seattle City Council seat. The rest of the council would’ve been nice, but wasn’t the primary focus.

It's hard to spin funneling $1.5 million into a political action committee as anything but a corrupt move—especially when just four years earlier, in 2015, the company contributed $25,000 to the same group. That same year, the company and its employees contributed a grand total of $130,000 to city council races. What changed was that in 2018, Amazon was threatened with a tax proposal that would’ve cost the company (which pays zero taxes on its profits) something north of $10 million.


Amazon's "money bomb" had three major purposes. First and foremost, the spending was meant to defeat Kshama Sawant, an incumbent socialist who has been Amazon's most prominent critic in its hometown since being elected in 2013.

Sawant helped lead the first $15 minimum wage in a major US city, strengthened tenant rights by establishing limits on move-in fees, drove support for a rent control proposal, and pushed a Head Tax that would have expanded housing and homeless services via a per-employee tax on companies with $20 million in revenues or more. The city council had unanimously approved the Head Tax, but Amazon launched a vicious campaign to kill it, successfully flipping its support from 9-0 to 2-7.

That leads us to the second purpose of Amazon’s political contributions: sending a message. "Simply showing it really is willing to spend eye-popping sums against candidates who would check its power forces elected officials to weigh that fact against the public's demands to reign in Amazon's greed,” Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen's President's office, told Motherboard in an email.

Claypool, who studies corporate power at the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, linked Amazon’s strategy back to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which protected corporate political spending as a form of speech.

"This corporate behemoth is already abusing its market power, paying nothing in federal taxes and exploiting its workers. Now it's trying to buy our democracy,” Claypool said.

The third purpose of Amazon’s meddling may have been the least successful: successfully placing Amazon-approved candidates on the Seattle City Council. Egan Orion, Sawant’s opponent, Egan Orion, was Amazon’s most important candidate in a race that is still too close to call. He also happens to oppose the Head Tax, also called the “Amazon tax,” which Sawant promised to push forward again.

Amazon backed seven candidates in total, but as of Tuesday night, three including Orion were in the lead, three were losing, and one was tied. When you’re trying to buy an election with seven candidates, you generally want better numbers than that.

In other words, the buyout backfired. "Amazon's spending helped unite and grow the left," former Mayor Mike McGinn told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "The labor and social justice block gained seats in this election."