Seattle’s rockstar socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant will be sworn in tonight as the council’s most senior member. Immediately thereafter, she will launch a new Tax Amazon campaign. Sawant hopes to build on the momentum from last November’s election—in which the tech giant’s $1.5-million gambit to swing the council failed miserably—to generate renewed support for a big-business tax to fund affordable housing, homeless services, and Seattle’s Green New Deal.
After the whiplash-inducing events of spring 2018, when the so-called “head tax” was passed and then quickly repealed under pressure from Amazon and other businesses subject to the tax—Uwajimaya became the poster child for the tax’s collateral damage—there now appears to be strong prospects for a new, more thoughtfully considered progressive tax on big business. (I was thrilled to see a King County-wide tax in the mix, which would prevent local businesses from simply shifting over to the Eastside when the challenges of affordable housing and homelessness are countywide and then some.)
With everyone’s favorite online retailer remaining squarely in the bull’s eye—Sawant is sticking to her guns and continuing to brand this effort an “Amazon tax”—what does it mean to patronize the business that is also the target of your political ire? Because both the councilmember herself and her recent reelection campaign are customers.
When confronted on the radical Seattle politics podcast Activist Class with a geeky leftist “Would you rather?” prompt that included receiving weekly Amazon deliveries, Sawant was frank: “I do have an Amazon Prime account, but I don’t shop once a week.”
The admission raised some eyebrows among the hosts, who did an admirable job cultivating an interview rapport that encouraged Sawant to disarm her public persona. I learned that cooking is her way to de-stress from the campaign trail and she has a weakness for mysteries, however lowbrow. Those are the kinds of human details I struggled to elicit when interviewing the councilmember for a profile in the heat of the head tax debate.
Sawant elaborated: “For me, boycotting is a political question—the Montgomery bus boycott worked because it was part of an organized strategy. In the face of a trillion-dollar corporation with half of U.S. households as Prime subscribers, for me to boycott Amazon would be personally uplifting. [But] I don’t think I can be dishonest enough to pretend that if I didn’t shop at Amazon, somehow it’s having an impact. We should also not allow people to kid themselves on their lifestyle politics either, I mean, this is capitalism. How many companies are you going to boycott?”
Certainly for her reelection campaign, not many, if any at all. According to filings with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the Sawant campaign spent $2,732.82 at Amazon.com for stuff like tablecloths, folding tables, a wi-fi range extender, a rechargeable battery, and lots of printer toner. The campaign spent another $2,878.26 at a constellation of chains and big box stores, including Target, FedEx Office, Costco, Safeway, and Home Depot on everything from postering supplies to drinks for the election night party.
These expenditures were just a small fraction of the campaign’s nearly $585,000 budget. I agree with Sawant that not spending a few hundred bucks at Costco—or ordering some mysteries from Amazon—isn’t going to make or break their bottom line. But I also agree that “this is capitalism,” which is precisely why how we spend our dollars matters. Because a few hundred or a thousand dollars does make a dent in the bottom line for local businesses. It’s the monetary vote we cast every day rather than the ballot vote we can only cast twice a year.
Walk into Central Co-op on Capitol Hill and you’ll be greeted with the results of a recent economic impact study showing that the member-owned, unionized co-op circulates double its dollars in the Washington economy than a chain grocer does. Down the street at the independently owned Pacific Supply Hardware on 12th Avenue, another poster cites a 2015 study by the North American Retail Hardware Association: “If consumers shifted just 10% of their purchases from the big boxes to local home improvement stores an additional $1.3 billion would stay in hometowns across the nation each year.”
As my own household works to cut the Amazon cord, I’m aware that buying brick-and-mortar local is a lot harder than it was a decade ago. Amazon has gobbled up the market share for so many humdrum items—where the hell in Seattle but Amazon do you buy toner cartridge these days?—but this city, and especially Sawant’s District 3 (also my home district), is still a stronghold of local, independently-owned businesses. It only takes a little bit of thoughtfulness to figure out that you can buy election night snacks at the Co-op rather than Safeway, runoff Re-elect Kshama signs at Perfect Copy and Print rather than FedEx Office, or snag postering tape from Pacific Supply Hardware rather than making a Home Depot run.
I am sure the heat of an election campaign makes it hard to stop and scrutinize such choices, but I believe Sawant and her movement at Socialist Alternative are capable, given the rigor they apply to political questions in front of the council. (Sawant’s campaign manager, Chris Gray, referred me to the councilmember’s office for comment now that the election is over. I spoke off the record with a staff member, but the councilmember’s office did not provide an official comment by press time.)
Sawant well knows that such symbolism matters. She hosted her primary and general election night parties at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, a publicly-owned building dedicated to Black artistic genius. She hosted her victory party—and will host tonight’s swearing-in ceremony by Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Tax Amazon launch—at Washington Hall, a storied building held in trust by Historic Seattle, whose history includes socialist organizing. These are commendable choices and the several thousand dollars the campaign and councilmember’s office spent to secure those venues was money well spent. Ditto for the $1,281 on the delicious Indian food from Mirch Masala on which I gorged myself during election night reporting.
I want to live in a Seattle with more Langstons and Washington Halls and Mirch Masalas and Sabas, and I hope that taxing big business, including Amazon, can help make that happen. (It’s part of the reason Logan Bowers’ May campaign launch—back when he was the leading challenger in D3—at bro-fest beer hall Rhein Haus sounded irrepressibly tone deaf. A fine place to console your Seahawks playoff sorrows with a beer and a brat; a terrible place to campaign for city council in District 3.)
The dust has settled from the election. Sawant won, naysayers be damned. But after tonight’s rabble-rousing festivities, I hope that Sawant and her movement can pause to envision not just the big picture of taxing Amazon, but the granular picture of how to translate new progressive revenue into the Seattle we want. Legacy business preservation? Vienna-style social housing?
It’s time to get into the weeds—and that starts with buying your mysteries at Elliott Bay Book Company, not Amazon.