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New York State Senator Mike Gianaris is fighting the Amazon HQ2 deal. He holds a key position on an obscure board and may hold power to veto part of Amazon's incentives package.
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New York State Senator Mike Gianaris is fighting the Amazon HQ2 deal. He holds a key position on an obscure board and may hold power to veto part of Amazon's incentives package.
Credit: Senator Mike Gianaris

Resistance may not be futile as New York politicians join effort against Amazon

Amazon announced that it would build a headquarters in Queens, but a growing group of politicians are saying no way.

Jaime Iglehart, an artist in Queens, was the first to tell me about the resistance to Amazon. “I don’t think that it’s a done deal," said Iglehart, who works in Queens at an art collective called the Flux Factory.

Nomiki Konst is fighting the Amazon decision from the far left.
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Nomiki Konst is fighting the Amazon decision from the far left.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Iglehart's refusal to accept the Amazon deal didn't shock me, as artists were displaced in Seattle during the Amazon boom. Nor was it surprising to hear that people from the hard political left opposed Amazon — like Nomiki Konst, who's running for public advocate of New York (an elected watchdog position), or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But I didn't realize how deeply rooted the Amazon resistance had become. Turns out, Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council, has launched hearings into the HQ2 deal.

The first hearing is December 12, and the title of the hearing pulls no punches: "Amazon HQ2 Oversight - Stage 1: Exposing the Closed-Door Process." Additional hearings in January and February promise to keep the headache going for Amazon.

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A crowded subway in New York in November, 2018
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A crowded subway in New York in November, 2018
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

These hearings could result in New York officials not being allowed to sign non-disclosure agreements with companies like Amazon in the future.

In the hearings, council members will have subpoena power. They could daylight details of the negotiations that went on with Amazon. That could raise political pressure to overturn or renegotiate the deal.

New York City Councilmember Brad Lander
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New York City Councilmember Brad Lander
Credit: New York City Council

Brad Lander, a New York city council member, told me he's been watching Seattle politics and sees lessons for New York.

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He said he's friends with several Seattle council members, with whom he talks as part of a networking group.

Lander said he watched Seattle elected officials pass the head tax, which would have raised money from Amazon to address homelessness. He watched Amazon fight it. And he watched his friends then have to eat their words and repeal it.

“We’ve got to be able to put in place the services and infrastructure and rules and regulations that make that growth work for everybody," Lander told me.

"If it over-stresses our infrastructure or makes our housing unaffordable in a way that’s harming people more than helping them, that’s a real problem," he said.

"It sounded like that was the approach Amazon was taking in Seattle," he said. "The bidding process gave every reason to fear that’s what they’re looking for in HQ2 as well.”

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Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the democrats in New York's state senate, which just won a majority after ten years out of power. She has expressed deep concerns about Amazon's HQ2 deal with New York and has called for accountability.
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Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the democrats in New York's state senate, which just won a majority after ten years out of power. She has expressed deep concerns about Amazon's HQ2 deal with New York and has called for accountability.
Credit: Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the top Democrat in the Senate, has also expressed deep concerns about the Amazon deal.

Mike Gianaris, another important senator, has also spoken out against Amazon. This is significant, because the HQ2 deal needs approval from a board that Gianaris sits on.

Given that Democrats just took control of the state senate, Gianaris may have veto power over parts of the tax incentives package given to Amazon.

The Court Square Diner in Long Island City, near Amazon's proposed headquarters
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The Court Square Diner in Long Island City, near Amazon's proposed headquarters
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
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Of course, there's no guarantee Gianaris would use that veto.

Amazon and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have presented the new headquarters as a done deal, but some politicians who initially signed a letter supporting New York's bid for HQ2 have reversed course and are now against the deal, Brad Lander said.

The incoming political majority seems to have caught scent of the shifting political winds on this Amazon deal.

News coverage of Amazon's HQ2 has alluded to predictions of skeptics like Scott Galloway that Amazon would use HQ cities against each other, shifting growth into whichever city offered the least resistance and the most incentives in a "race to the bottom."

That's pure speculation, but not so far from the work stoppage Amazon imposed that threw Seattle into a panic and led to the head tax repeal.

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There's another possibility that Amazon doesn't appear to have considered: Politicians in Seattle might draw inspiration from New York's resistance.

Amazon appears to be panicking. Crain's New York has reported that Amazon just hired a big public relations firm to manage their message in New York.

When I spoke with Konst, the woman running for public advocate, she was giddy that her view of the tech company was held by more moderate lawmakers.

“We have not had a Democratic [state] senate in a few years," she said. "We’re still learning every day what is possible and what is not possible.”