The Week in Tech: Amazon Muscles In on Seattle Election

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Greetings from Seattle, where we have seven straight days of rain in the forecast. I’m Karen Weise, the tech correspondent here. Let’s start with our local giant, Amazon:

Amazon may have taken some hits in the Democratic debate on Tuesday, but in its hometown, it has come out swinging. Seattle is fast approaching one of the most contentious local elections in recent memory, and Amazon this week dropped an additional $1 million into the fray.

Amazon’s new contributions, made to the political action committee run by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, bring its total to more than $1.4 million this year, a staggering sum for a city election, let alone from a company that was M.I.A. in local politics for years. Four years ago, Amazon gave just $25,000 to the PAC.

Seven of the nine seats on the City Council are up for grabs in November, presenting an opportunity to virtually remake the booming city’s leadership at a pivotal time for addressing the stresses of growth, affordability and homelessness. In a poll released on Wednesday, two-thirds of likely voters said they were looking for change.

In addition to the political contributions, Amazon has hosted a candidates’ forum and has been encouraging employees to vote like never before. It has also invited local journalists to at least two off-the-record happy hours, one leading up to the primary election and the other this month.

These are all signs that Amazon has been rethinking its lackadaisical approach to its hometown after the downsides became particularly clear last year, when it got into a bruising fight. The Council was considering a per-employee “head tax” on large companies to pay for homeless services and affordable housing, and as the vote drew near, Amazon turned to its old playbook, threatening to halt some of its development plans in the city.

After the Council unanimously passed the tax, which would have raised about $50 million, Amazon funded a campaign that succeeded in pushing the Council to repeal it. Amazon may have won, but the fight left a sour taste for residents and inside Amazon’s headquarters.

“Amazon has held civic affairs at arm’s length for so long,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of tech companies and the government. “The head tax seemed to have activated them.”

In a statement, an Amazon spokesman, Aaron Toso, said: “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.”

For Amazon, the biggest prize in the current election would be unseating Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party who represents the Capitol Hill area and its surrounding neighborhoods, where many Amazon employees live. Her election was a driving force behind the city’s adoption of a $15 minimum wage five years ago, and she has been a relentless critic of the company, leading protests in front of its headquarters.

“For the business community, she has been such an irritance,” Ms. O’Mara said. “She pushed the conversation to the left further than before, opening up space for other officials” to bring up more progressive ideas, like the head tax.

The chamber’s PAC, fueled with Amazon’s cash, has spent almost twice as much on direct mail and canvassing in Ms. Sawant’s district as in any other race, campaign finance data shows. And that doesn’t include more than $16,000 that Amazon employees — largely executives — contributed to her opponent, Egan Orion. Jeff Wilke and Andy Jassy, who respectively run Amazon’s retail and cloud computing services, each maxed out the $500 that an individual can give, as did other Amazon leaders, including Jay Carney, who oversees lobbying and communications.

Local unions have put “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into the election, largely to candidates the chamber opposes, The Seattle Times reported in its coverage of Amazon’s contributions.

Ms. Sawant’s campaign has tried to turn Amazon’s opposition into an asset. “EMERGENCY! Amazon just dropped a $1 million bomb on Seattle elections — we can’t let Jeff Bezos buy City Hall!” her campaign declared on Twitter, in a post that including a link for donations.

  • Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hosting off-the-record dinners at his home with conservative pundits and media figures, including Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro, Politico reported. Mr. Zuckerburg responded by saying he has dinner with “lots of people” about “lots of issues.” On Thursday, he also delivered a wide-ranging address defending his company to students at Georgetown University.

  • Amazon is selling cheap products with free shipping at prices lower than what it must pay to ship the items to customers. Jason Del Rey at Recode explained how Amazon might be gaining advantages over other retailers and then pushing the costs back on brands.

  • WeWork! Where to even begin? The collapse of WeLive? The Sophie’s Choice of a bailout? The hazardous phone booths? The mystic bond offering?

  • You may think you’re a great photographer, but it’s increasingly likely that your phone just has really great artificial intelligence, Brian X. Chen wrote.

  • Twitch, which started as a site to live-stream gaming, is morphing into a “repository for political speech and terrorist propaganda,” Drew Harwell and Jay Greene reported in The Washington Post.

  • “Intuit recognized that its success depended on two parallel missions: stoking innovation in Silicon Valley while stifling it in Washington.” Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel of ProPublica uncovered the lobbying, revolving door and “dark pattern” designs that TurboTax successfully wielded for two decades to prevent Americans from filing their taxes for free.

  • In our new Visionaries series, Ellen Rosen profiled Andrew Kassoy and the other two co-founders of B Lab, who are encouraging businesses to focus on more than just profits.

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