The story that will emerge from the 2019 Seattle, Washington elections should be of interest to anyone working in campaigns, from data appending and other management services to more ephemeral strategists. The big picture part of the story is this: Some big corporations were fixated on the outcome of very local elections, for very localized reasons, and so those corporations spent a lot of money to influence those elections—and it turns out that was money wasted.
Geekwire is one of many news sources that noted the sudden and “unprecedented interest in Seattle’s upcoming election” by entities like Amazon, “spending big and turning the national spotlight on local politics.” Amazon threw in a million dollars to city council candidates who would not press the taxation issues that Seattle’s more leftward leaders had done. Anti-tax and free-market advocates, tech executives at Microsoft, even “rank and file” workers at Seattle companies, were donating to these champions of entrepreneurialism. Another million was poured into ballot initiative campaigns, “and tech trade groups are becoming more vocal in local politics.” The last part—actually participating in the political process—was probably more productive than the donations.
Because in the end, the races were too close to call, or the pro-business candidates lost outright. “Several business-backed candidates trailed their more progressive competitors in the first reported votes, suggesting the new City Council will not be a dramatic departure from the previous one.” One wonders how much each vote ended up costing the corporate interests, and all this at the risk of Seattle becoming “a national political spectacle.” Even the wins are too expensive to be rationalized as simply a good investment, especially given that such tax policies may be inevitable in the policy exigencies of climate crises over the next several years.
One race that remained too close to call for several days was the effort by Egan Orion in District 3 to unseat Kshama Sawant. But regardless of the outcome (which had still not been called at the time this post was written), the real lesson of that race was how little the candidates themselves actually relate to the corporations that are trying to elect them. This race was a top priority for CASE, which “spent $443,000 in support of Sawant’s opponent, Orion, more than any other candidate, according to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission records.” This money from Amazon, CASE, and other sources actually embarrassed Egan Orion, and he called it “completely unnecessary” and said he wanted to win without “the shadow of Amazon hanging over me.”
It’s easy to say this was all for the avoidance of a $10 million per year tax Amazon would have to pay, but of course it’s also about the tech sector’s interest in a city that tends away from, rather than further toward, regulations and taxation—so in that sense the race was symbolic more than immediately economic. And in that sense, the race was a failure, because in order to get a symbolic rebuke, you need decisive wins, not just little squeakers.