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Amazon Is Spending Big to Oust Seattle’s Socialist Council Member

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Last month Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was the lone woman of color on stage alongside her rival City Council candidate Egan Orion and three middle-aged white male moderators from local news stations. It took Sawant just two sentences to steer the debate to the issue at the center of her reelection campaign: the evils of big corporations. Six weeks from election day, Orion, a self-described progressive liberal, had highlighted the importance of bringing people together. Sawant did not disagree, but replied, “The crucial question is, unity and collaboration and coalitions with whom?” “My opponent is the poster child for big business,” she went on. “He has more corporate money than any candidate in Seattle City Council history. And we know what corporations like Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce are trying to do. They’re trying to flip City Hall to the right and reverse our progressive victories.”

She spoke quickly, and paused so rarely that you could tell she’d been interrupted far too many times in her life. She kept tying her answers to the threats posed by business interests. Based on the cheers, the audience appeared to be evenly split between Sawant and Orion. But at the end, when one of the moderators thanked Amazon, the event’s sponsor, a loud “Boo!” rang out.

On Tuesday, Amazon gave an additional million dollars to support business-friendly members of the City Council like Orion. The tech giant has now poured an unprecedented $1.45 million into the local elections, and ballots are being sent to voters this week. (Washington votes by mail.)

Sawant has long been an outspoken critic of large corporations, and it’s not surprising that she’s ended up in Amazon’s sights. During a contentious City Council meeting last summer, she called Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos the “enemy.”

“What’s at stake this year is who gets to run Seattle, Amazon and big business and the Chamber of Commerce, or working people,” Sawant told me at Squirrel Chops, a socialist-owned coffee shop just blocks from her home.

Specifically, she is fighting for rent control, an expansion of affordable housing, and a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. When asked during the debate about whether she would revisit the “head tax,” a controversial, per-employee tax on large corporations that was repealed last year, less than a month after it was passed, she said she “would proudly push for it again.”

In the August primary to whittle the vote down to two candidates, Sawant won with 37 percent to Orion’s 22 percent. But since then, The Seattle Times endorsed Orion in a scathing editorial on Sawant’s leadership. “Seattle voters who love self-promoting, slogan-tossing, poor-performing politicians are in luck,” the piece said. “Not just because Donald Trump is president, but because Kshama Sawant squeaked through the primary, in pursuit of another City Council term.”

Orion is an LGBTQ community leader who in another election might be seen as a progressive candidate. He’s known for creating PrideFest Capitol Hill and as a small-business advocate. He previously served as interim executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and is now the director of the Broadway Business Improvement Area. He considers affordability and homelessness Seattle’s two main issues, but disagrees with Sawant on the best ways to solve them. He is against Sawant’s rent control plan, arguing that it is illegal under Washington law and that it would reduce private housing development. He proposes a rent stabilization plan by which landlords would not be allowed to raise rent more than about 10 percent a year. He is also against the head tax, which he said did not have anywhere near enough support from voters. And to address homelessness, he wants to create an emergency fund to help people keep their homes during a crisis and for the City to partner with King County to produce 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing.

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