November 11, 2019
Here and San Francisco and all across America, last week marked the end of another grueling political campaign season. Here in the City by the Bay, it was a time for celebration for progressives as too-close-to-call races broke in our favor. In District 5, where I live, tenant rights attorney Dean Preston emerged victorious over incumbent Vallie Brown by the narrowest of margins — just 170 votes — in the Board of Supervisors (city council) race, while in the district attorney contest public defender Chesa Boudin, the son of Weather Underground activists, defeated prosecutor Suzy Loftus, who despite running for the office was appointed interim DA by Mayor London Breed just weeks before the election.
Boudin’s victory was especially delicious, as mayoral machinations, meant to artificially create instant “incumbency” and all its attendant benefits for Loftus, backfired spectacularly. Many eyebrows and much ire were raised over the mayor’s move, as they were over vicious attacks painting Boudin as the criminals’ choice. The vicious attacks were largely bankrolled by the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association, which spent some $650,000 trying to buy the race for Loftus.
The prospects for holding Big Tech accountable in San Francisco, a city where the power elite are closely connected to — and often shamefully subservient to — industry money, are much brighter with Boudin as top cop and Preston further cementing a progressive supermajority on the Board of Supervisors. But I’m actually here today mostly to talk not about San Francisco but rather Seattle, where incumbent Kshama Sawant, an actual big-S Socialist and the first one to serve on the City Council in over a century, declared victory in the District 3 race on Saturday, capping a remarkable come-from-behind surge.
What’s most remarkable about Sawant’s triumph is that it came despite — or perhaps even because of — massive spending by Amazon, Seattle’s largest employer, against her. The company, where Ethics In Tech founder Vahid Razavi previously worked as a project manager, poured $1.5 million into seven district races, including hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Egan Orion, Sawant’s challenger. It’s easy to understand why Amazon, owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, would want to thwart Sawant, who in addition to being instrumental in bringing a $15 minimum wage to Seattle and being a constant thorn in corporations’ sides, is pushing hard to revive a per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses that would have raised money for homeless housing and services, commonly called the head tax.
The City Council voted 9-0 to enact such a tax in May 2018. But then, in a humiliating reversal, local lawmakers, who reckoned the tax couldn’t survive a challenge fueled by the unlimited money and resources that could be expended by its opponents, waved the white flag before the battle was even fought and repealed it a month later. The vote was 7-2. Guess who one of those dissenters was?
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is, of course, horrified by the prospect of the head tax rearing its ugly (to them) head again, and it spent accordingly. Thanks to the US Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which affirmed that corporations are people and that they could spend unlimited sums on influencing elections, that meant that Amazon could spend as much as it liked through the Chamber-affiliated no-limit political action committee (PAC), Civilian Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE). According to the Seattle Times, business-backed PACs led by CASE spent $617,592 in support of Orion. A laughable — or should I say laudable — $2,060 in labor-related PAC money was spent backing Sawant. Put another way, Orion raised 300 times as much PAC money as Sawant.
It wasn’t long before Amazon’s bid to buy the election was making national headlines. Progressives from coast to coast, including Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, took to social media to blast Amazon, while others cast Jeff Bezos cast as 2019’s Vladimir Putin.
“The narrative did shift, and it became more of a national narrative, where you had presidential candidates weighing into local elections, rather than a referendum on the current city council and their effectiveness on local issues like homelessness, transportation and affordability,” CASE Executive Director Markham McIntyre told local station KOMO.
Orion blames Amazon for his loss, saying its “contribution to CASE was our October surprise and a great gift to the Sawant team who previous to that clearly saw this race slipping away from them.” And it wasn’t just Sawant — in at least four districts, progressives beat CASE-backed candidates despite all that PAC money spent. It was yet another spectacular backfire; one welcomed warmly by progressives in Seattle and far beyond.
Does all of this mean that a head tax revival is imminent? Hardly. The newly-elected council members campaigned with varying positions on the tax, and there is, of course, Mayor Jenny Durkan, who signed both the approval and repeal of the measure. However, this resounding win for the Left certainly gives the Council the momentum and the mandate to help ensure that the world’s wealthiest corporations pay their fair share to the community in which they do business.