Seattle council race stays tight despite Amazon's hefty donations

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Seattle’s city council race was a toss-up between a pro-business and a progressive council on Tuesday night, despite record election campaign donations from big donors, including tech giant

Amazon donated $1.5 million to a “Super PAC” run by the local chamber of commerce, which endorsed candidates for the seven seats up for election in the nine-seat city council. Four years ago Amazon donated $25,000 to the political action committee.

Marilyn Strickland, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said late on Tuesday, “Tonight’s initial returns are not definitive enough to call these close races.”

More ballots will be counted in the coming days, although a winner might be clear after the next count on Wednesday afternoon.

The bellwether race is between incumbent socialist Kshama Sawant who faces challenger Egan Orion, a small business advocate who directs an LGBT pride festival.

Sawant trailed on Tuesday night with 28 percent of ballots counted and did not hit the minimum percentage in the first results that her campaign thought she needs to win.

“We faced an onslaught of corporate cash,” Sawant said at an election night party. “If anything we underestimated the brazenness of (Amazon CEO Jeff) Bezos, corporate real estate, and big business.”

Sawant’s campaign raised over $508,000 through individual donations that averaged $70.

The Seattle metropolitan area’s growing problem with homelessness - King County has the third-largest homeless population after New York city and Los Angeles County - has been a key point of friction between Amazon and the city.

Amazon spokesman Aaron Toso said in a statement earlier, “We are contributing to this election because we care deeply about the future of Seattle.”

“We believe it is critical that our hometown has a city council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety,” the statement said.

In May 2018, the council approved a per-employee “head tax” on the city’s biggest companies to pay for homeless services and affordable housing - only to scale it back a month later when Amazon said it might freeze expansion planning for Seattle.

In response to Amazon’s $1.5 million donation, Council member Lorena González proposed a bill in October that would prohibit “foreign-influenced corporations” from making political contributions in Seattle elections. The bill defines that as a company which has one percent or more of its shares held by foreigners or foreign entities.

A spokesman for declined to comment whether or not the company would constitute a foreign-influenced corporation under the proposed law.

Reporting by Gregpory Scruggs; Additional reporting by Rich McKay; editing by Simon Cameron-Moor