Seattle race between socialist and Amazon-backed candidate too close to call | US news

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A Seattle city council race between socialist Kshama Sawant and business-backed Egan Orion that saw unprecedented financial contributions from Amazon and some of its top executives was too close to call on Wednesday – although Orion was ahead in early counting.

The tech giant, which is headquartered in the city, funneled $1.5m into the local city council elections by way of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which backed Orion and six other candidates considered to be business-friendly. In 2015, the tech corporation and its employees only contributed about $130,000 to the city council candidates, according to the New York Times.

But despite the incredible amount of money contributed to the races by Amazon, there is no sign that the candidates endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Pac, the Amazon-backed political action committee, will come away with a landslide victory.

With more than half of Seattle’s ballots counted, incumbent council member Sawant trailed Orion by about eight percentage points. But given that later voters in the city often lean far left, it remained difficult to predict which candidate would ultimately prevail.

The results in other city council districts also remain uncertain on Wednesday: Phil Tavel, Heidi Wills and Mark Solomon, candidates who were all endorsed by the Amazon-backed Pac, trailed their opponents by at least a few percentage points (Solomon is behind by about 12 percentage points). While some candidates endorsed by the Pac, including Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez have a substantial lead, Jim Pugel is ahead of his opponent by less than one percentage point.

Orion said he was excited about the initial results and while he thought the funds from Amazon may have had a very minor impact, he considered them unnecessary.

“From my perspective, I think that the Amazon money was a big distraction when we were trying to make our closing arguments with voters,” said Orion.

Other locally based corporations, including Boeing and Microsoft, also contributed to Orion’s campaign.

Kshama Sawant speaks at City Hall in Seattle.



Kshama Sawant speaks at City Hall in Seattle. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

“We have run a historic grassroots campaign, with working people, community members rejecting Amazon and billionaires’ attempt to buy this election, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to win every battle against the billionaires,” said Sawant.

“What matters is the political clarity that the billionaires are not on our side and that this is going to be a struggle.”

At a time when many Seattleites are already critical of Amazon’s influence in the city – with many pointing to the role it has played in Seattle’s rising cost of living and growing income inequality – the contributions left an unsavory taste in some residents’ mouths.

Sarah Champernowne, 29, a tech worker in Seattle who is a strong supporter of Sawant, said she was concerned about the corporation contributing this type of money in the election.

“It’s supposed to be a democratic process and it’s not a democratic process when Amazon can contribute that much to basically a small election,” she said.

Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party and former tech worker, has long been a fierce critic of big business and its influence on the city. After winning a council seat six years ago and becoming the first socialist on the Seattle city council in almost 100 years, she soon helped lead the push to bump the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour (a first for a major US city). She also helped secure better protections for renters, such as barring landlords from increasing rent on substandard homes.

But her battle against the influence of big business came to a head with her push last year for the Head Tax. The proposal would have implemented a per-employee tax on corporations making more than $20m each year to fund housing and services for the homeless in a city that has the third largest homeless population in the US, according to a 2018 federal report. With about 45,000 workers in Seattle, Amazon would have probably had to pay millions each year through the tax.

The nine-member council unanimously approved the tax. But after Amazon, another locally based global giant, Starbucks, and other companies contributed financially to the campaign to kill it, called No Tax on Jobs, all but two members of the council then quickly voted to repeal it. Sawant and Democratic council member Teresa Mosqueda, who is not up for re-election this year, were the only two who voted for the tax.

Sawant has said that if she were re-elected, she would push for the tax again. She has also been very vocal about the need for rent control in Seattle (it is currently banned in the city), and recently proposed a plan in which rent increases each year would not be allowed to outpace inflation.

Orion, an LGBTQ community leader and huge advocate of small businesses who considers himself a progressive liberal, does not support the Head Tax or rent control. Instead, he proposed plans that involve landlords being prohibited from increasing rent more than about 10% annually and a partnership between Seattle and King county to create 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing.


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