Money For Nothing?

Greg Ryan

In a town where Sanders and Warren are widely popular and Amazon is not, it’s not hard to imagine that Amazon’s support of Egan Orion was actually bad for his campaign.

―Katie Herzog, noted local phrenologist

Can you imagine spending that kind of money for this kind of result? If I were the Progressives I’d forget about limiting corporate PAC money if it led to revolts like these.

―Brandi Kruse, Q13 FOX

Amazon Effect. Shadow of Amazon. Amazon Backfire. Partisans and commentators from all sides of the November 5th Seattle City Council race have coalesced around a narrative which claims Amazon’s overall defeat can be blamed on, get this, the huge amount of money they spent to influence the race. They lost, but this is different from claiming their cash dump failed to do its job. The backfire narrative makes no sense under any scrutiny. Worse, it is ultimately a tool of power—of Amazon itself.

Amazon dropped about $1.4 million into the Civil Alliance for a Sound Economy's (CASE) Political Action Committee (PAC) run by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. No surprise considering who they were spending it against: Council member Kshama Sawant, the two (soon three) term socialist and national figure who has led a movement fighting for workers in Seattle. She led the effort calling for a progressive tax on big business, passing a council bill unanimously in 2018, before seeing it reversed days later after Amazon made direct threats to the region’s economy. It made national news—and a mockery of democracy in Seattle. It was a perfect prelude to their aborted HQ2 Miss Amazon Pageant, and it set the stage for a tumultuous general election (with three incumbents deciding not to bother).

Also feeling the ire of Amazon and the Chamber were five other candidates who they felt could be progressive allies to Sawant if elected. Notably Shaun Scott, the Democratic Socialist with a bold, holistic vision for the city’s climate future, racial equity, and economic justice, and the strong progressive voice of community organizer Tammy Morales. All their plans involved taxing Amazon. With a strong enough block, and the experienced leadership of Sawant, along with the popular movement behind her, they were poised to get it done.

What was Amazon to do? Spend. It’s that simple. Election spending works, and they have the money. That money buys ads, mailers, paid canvassers, consultants, and research. If it didn’t move votes, no one would open their wallet. Citizens United and the tidal wave of corporate cash it unleashed would be no threat to democracy or workers movements. This is the premise being challenged in the wake of the election.

Amazon lost. Their slate of Chamber backed candidates went down almost to a seat. Only institutional vampire, Alex Pedersen, squeaked by inspiring longshot, Shaun Scott. Seattle didn’t buy what Bezos was selling and Amazon has a less friendly council to look forward to. They should be ashamed for tossing their money around at all, and embarrassed for looking so stupid doing it. The whole city is rightly eager to shun them—to shackle them in rhetorical stocks and pelt them with fruit. Sawant, Morales, Herbold and the rest should savor this win against the awesome power of the world’s richest man. But many want to go a bit farther than that. The near ubiquitous take seems to be that Amazon’s big cash infusion “backfired,” that voters directly rejected this attempt to subvert democracy by voting against the Chamber slate because of the money. A subtle but important exaggeration.

There is no doubt that the widely reported money bomb had some negative effect on the candidates it was intended to favor. It was a fantastic talking point for the leftish slate. It played directly to the message Sawant has been pushing for years. People I personally spoke to on the campaign trail were often disgusted. Usually after I told them about it.

It was national news, and fodder for many a column in local publications. But there is no reason to think it permeated down to every voter. Only 55 percent of registered Seattle voters turned out in this off-year election. Likely, many had barely heard of the candidates before they picked up their ballots and voter guide. For us dorks, activists, and cranks every detail of this long, bitter, exciting fight was meaningful. The backfire narrative has a compelling logic to it, but is reliant on elite media bubble thinking. I’ve neither heard nor seen anything to make me think a vast enough group of voters were swayed by this outrage to outweigh the intended effect of the spending.

The spending worked to secure victory for Alex Pedersen, the Amazon/Chamber backed candidate who was barely a candidate at all. Pedersen skipped over a dozen candidate forums that Scott attended, and when he bothered to show up for a debate he had nothing in particular to say. He did get in line to ingratiate himself to the Chamber and secure their endorsement, thereby receiving the benefit of the Amazon spending which came in the package deal. He made sure to campaign to their liking and to that of his old boss, former council member and interim mayor, Tim Burgess, who also channeled money into Pedersen’s race through his People for Seattle PAC. How does an empty suit like Pedersen even compete with a uniquely intelligent, charismatic, and convincing voice like Shaun Scott’s? How does a campaign that barely exists do battle with the incredible passion and organization of the Scott staff? Just how does one go up against an army of volunteers ready to knock on every door in the district for the bold vision of your opponent? Money.

Bombarding people with your name and your message works. Low information voters who decide on a whim not to ignore this funny little local election are likely as not to choose based on whose signs they’ve seen more of. Voters with no particular ideology and a passing knowledge of the city’s challenges can be swayed by the vague platitudes stuffed in their mailboxes. That was the Pedersen strategy. He stayed out of sight and off the campaign trail because he knew he sounded like a joke next to Scott. He also knew he had the money to do his work for him. Without it, Pedersen would not have finished this race with a five point lead. The actual votes are totally unquantifiable (even with polling), but I would gladly buy that the “backlash” cost him a couple of points. Just don’t tell me the money didn’t buy him twenty.

Some of these claims are just buying into an easy story, a dramatic, ironic way to spin the Chamber’s failure, while others want to make this connection very clearly. Referring to statements of condemnation from presidential candidates The Stranger’s Katie Herzog lazily offered that, “In a town where Sanders and Warren are widely popular and Amazon is not, it’s not hard to imagine that Amazon’s support of Egan Orion was actually bad for his campaign.” Where do we get this idea that Amazon is not popular in any broad sense? Failing to back up this logic with logic, Crosscut published a post by David Kroman on Sawant’s final victory subtitled: “Two weeks before election day, polling showed Egan Orion leading — but also that Amazon's contributions were going to be a problem.” Apparently referring to CASE’s own polling he explains,

“In the race for District 3 between Sawant and Orion, polling two weeks before election day had Orion winning by high-single digits, according to a source familiar with the late-tracking polls. But the same polling also showed a strongly negative reaction to the Amazon contribution, which spelled trouble for those most associated with the cash dumps.”

Assuming he is actually saying that respondents were questioned specifically about the novelty sized sweepstakes check cut by Amazon to the Chamber, as in “how do you feel about Amazon giving $1.4 million toward certain candidates in every district making this the most expensive council race in history,” this would constitute little more than a push poll. Most people who find out about it think it stinks. But how many is that? And what makes us think anyone knew or cared enough to figure out which candidate was backed by Amazon? We can guess that Egan Orion’s onslaught of mailers failed to mention this fact.

Orion, a flash-mob organizer and Chamber adjacent shill also ran a deeply boring, if more visible campaign. What makes us think this blank white face, whose only claim to community involvement is having corporatized Pride and moved it off Capitol Hill, was a worthy challenger to very popular two term incumbent, Kshama Sawant? Sawant already had the name recognition Amazon had to buy for Orion. More than that, pinned to that name in the minds of Seattle is her utterly consistent critique and program. Without corporate spending to fuel him, Orion would not have come within ten points of Sawant. Thanks to Amazon’s money he came within three. It’s possible that Sawant’s heavy use of the Amazon narrative swayed over three percent to her side, but the money still did its job.

They lost. You can say it was a bad investment (though I find it hard to believe they are crying over a mere million and a half), you can say it wasn’t effective enough, but don’t tell me its effect was net negative. That is the story being lazily or slyly claimed: that the PR was so bad for someone like Phil Tavel, that it turned more voters to the incumbent, Lisa Herbold, than it bought. We have every reason, historical and immediate, to think the money was effective in getting large numbers of votes. I’ve seen nothing that suggests the backlash was on the radar of more than a few people outside the politically obsessed.

Why quibble? It sounds good, doesn’t it? Amazon was repudiated! Their money is no good here! They’re dumb and can’t buy our election! Why not say their money “backfired” while we’re at it? Beyond its mathematical dubiousness and fuzzy thinking, this version of events carries with it certain malignancies.

The “backfire” story originates from the minds and mouths of the Chamber backed campaigns themselves. Recall the tales of woe that came out of the campaigns of those benefitting from these massive “independent expenditures.” Picture the crocodile tears of Egan Orion after the story gained traction, on the defensive against Sawant linking him to Amazon and its unchecked power.

KUOW’s Amy Radil, in a post incredibly titled “Shadow of Amazon.’ Egan Orion wishes Amazon hadn't funneled big bucks to his campaign,” reported that on election night Egan Orion was “not pleased” and “very frustrated,” calling Amazon’s engagement in the race a “big distraction.” In the same article she quotes the Chamber’s District 6 candidate, and disgraced former council member, Heidi Wills, saying of the CASE money spent to elect her, “It’s been hard on candidates. When special interests get involved and have influence over the campaign message it becomes something the candidate has no control over.” The heart breaks.

Those candidates went to the Chamber, they filled out the questionnaire, told them what they were into, and then acted surprised when Amazon came in and kissed them on the mouth. Now all the losers can claim that big, bad Amazon spoiled the chances of their dynamic, inspiring, progressive candidacies. Orion did exactly that in his concession video saying, “Unfortunately, when Amazon dropped over $1 million into the races…it made the election not about my opponent’s record and policies, but about Amazon and their massive, unneeded spending.”

Worse still is the way this implicitly erases the efforts of the campaigns and movements that worked so impressively against the Chamber candidates. Shaun Scott didn’t come from a 23% primary standing to get within 5 points of the city council because of his brave, relatable socialist message. No, that was the backlash. Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative, and the passionate movement of workers in District 3 who backed her didn’t convince voters that theirs was the way forward to housing security. No, these campaigns didn’t scale a mountain of cash and plant their flags on it. It must have crumbled to the ground before their eyes. This is to believe Tammy Morales performed as well as she did because of Amazon, rather than in spite of them.

Bold, uncompromising socialist programs are popular among Seattle voters. The establishment in this town would have you believe that Sawant’s worldview is too radical , and her style too divisive. Implying D3 really just voted against Orion and Amazon rather than for Sawant only supports exactly that message.

This thinking completely erases the power of capital to subvert and control our democracy. Why be worried about corporate spending in elections, much less the existence of billionaires, if we have just demonstrated that it can be defeated by self-generated public antipathy? In that case what role need we play at all? What role for organizing? Why continue to rebuke Amazon (as Sawant surely will) if they’ve been shown to have no power. Don’t take my word for it. On the Friday after the election as it became clear that Sawant would keep her seat, Brandi Kruse, Q13 Fox’s reasonable right-wing concern troll took to Twitter and asked, “Can you imagine spending that kind of money for this kind of result? If I were the Progressives (sic) I’d forget about limiting corporate PAC money if it led to revolts like these.”

They still have this power. We can only call this a loss for Amazon in the specific context of the checks they wrote. For their money they got one seat and some very bad vibes. But that $1.4 million barely registers as pocket change for our local monopolistic behemoth. In January, when the new council is sworn in, Amazon will continue to operate within a system wherein all priorities and all rules redound to their benefit.

Even a progressive tax like the one they were determined to prevent (by no means a certainty under this council and mayor) will certainly be too small in scale for anything more than a symbolic impact on their bottom line. Even so, if they choose to, they can and will continue to have outsized effects on our elections. They can spend a lot more money, they can spend it earlier, and they can spend it smarter.

Corporations, the rich, and accumulated wealth of any kind are impediments to democracy and to reform of any kind in this town and elsewhere. This “backfire” narrative flatters their interests by cleverly acknowledging their attempts to buy this election while actually forestalling the next logical question: how do we take their money away so they don’t have this power? So while the media gets to posture against Bezos by shaming his failure, they are actually working toward the same end that got Amazon into this race in the first place: to stop us from taking their money.

Read the companion piece “Behemoth