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caption: Pins supporting councilmember Kshama Sawant are shown on Sunday, August 4, 2019, at Pratt Park in Seattle.
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Pins supporting councilmember Kshama Sawant are shown on Sunday, August 4, 2019, at Pratt Park in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Why Kshama Sawant wanted to make Seattle's election all about Amazon

When Amazon contributed $1.4 million plus to a PAC supporting business-friendly candidates, the company gave City Councilmember Kshama Sawant the opponent she wanted: Jeff Bezos.

KUOW politics reporter David Hyde talked to All Things Considered host Kim Malcolm on election night.

Kim Malcolm: Voters will decide the future of the Seattle City Council today. Seven of nine seats are up for grabs. And KUOW politics reporter David Hyde, who is fighting a cold, is here with a preview. So what is the big story to watch for tonight?

David Hyde: Polling has consistently shown that the current council isn't that popular. There was a poll last year that showed this, which scared the heck out of the incumbents. There was a recent Elway / Crosscut poll that confirmed that. And a lot of the dissatisfaction in that poll also focused on the issue of homelessness

Kim Malcolm: And affordable housing as well?

David Hyde: Yes, but really homelessness being the big issue.

But then the story about this election totally changed after Amazon poured tons of money into this year's city council races. That got national attention because Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weighed in against all that Amazon money.

So Amazon became the main topic of the election , shortly after the ballots got sent out.

Sot the big question tonight is: Is all of that Amazon money going to backfire?

Kim Malcolm: Well, we won't have the final results tonight. But where would we start to see that question about Amazon's money answered?

David Hyde: One of the big places is District 3. This is the race to represent the Capitol Hill area between Kshama Sawant and community leader Egan Orion.

Sawant's results in the primary, you remember, were not great for incumbent. People felt that she was vulnerable. I think she felt like she was at risk of losing.

So it's just seems like if she comes back from that poor showing, perhaps that Amazon money backfired because she's been running hard against Amazon for a while.

Kim Malcolm: There seems to be a real animus around Sawant and Amazon. Remind us what's behind all that.

David Hyde: Well, she'll tell you it's class warfare. I mean, she's a revolutionary Marxist. She's unapologetic about that. She's a member of a group called Socialist Alternative, and their ultimate goal is ending capitalism.

Her fight with Amazon is because there's no bigger capitalist in Seattle than Jeff Bezos.

And of course, Amazon doesn't want to pay any more taxes than it has to.

Kim Malcolm: So what's been her strategy with Amazon in this election?

David Hyde: To keep the focus on big business and in particular, Amazon. Her opponent, of course, isn't exactly Amazon. It's this guy called Egan Orion, who's a community leader. He organizes Pride every year.

His argument has been that he's a liberal guy who's also going to listen to business. Sort of a pro-business liberal like a Hillary or Bill Clinton.

He argues Sawant hasn’t represented her district particularly well - that she's too divisive, and is always grandstanding.

But he has gotten a lot of support in the form of independent expenditures indirectly from Amazon through the Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Sawant and her supporters have been able to work hard to make that the focus - to run hard against this Amazon money and to basically dismiss Orion as a sort of corporate stooge.

Kim Malcolm: But she's also been battling Amazon for a long time, not just this year. This isn't just a 2019 election year stunt.

David Hyde: Yeah, that's 100 percent true. Last year, when the proposed head tax on big business was being debated, she insisted on calling it the Amazon tax. Not the head tax. And of course, Amazon is totally opposed to that tax.

Her strategy as a revolutionary Marxist is to get people like Jeff Bezos to fight back. And when that happens, the hope is that workers and other folks are going to see capitalism for what it is. Vicious. Then they're going to join Socialist Alternative, which is the group that she's a part of, and then they're going to support the revolution to get rid of capitalism.

So for Sawant issues like the $15 dollar an hour minimum wage or the head tax or rent control, are all really just steps. The ultimate goal is ending capitalism.

You need to be fighting what she calls the capitalist class at all times for that to happen.

Kim Malcolm: Well, sounds like that strategy has worked! Amazon played into her hands.

David Hyde: Absolutely right! Amazon, threw $1.5 million into this election. And that became the debate.

On the other hand, all that money does buy a lot of political ads. And those ads do help sway public opinion. So whereas she's saying Orion is a corporate stooge, the ads for Orion are saying she's ineffective and doesn't show up to represent her district.

Kim Malcolm: David, how well would someone need to do tonight for us to say definitively that the Amazon money backfired?

David Hyde: I hate the word definitively. But late returns usually tend to break in favor of younger, more liberal voters.

So if Sawant is not too far behind tonight in District 3 to the point where it looks like she can win, I think it's safe to say it backfired.

And according to her supporters, that's 47 percent or better tonight. They'd call that a likely win.

One the other hand, if the race is super tight, who knows how long it's going to take to find out who the winner is? But at least we won't have to worry about hanging chads.