On October 16th, 2017, an incredibly wide range of elected officials in New York City signed a letter to Jeff Bezos. The letter was simple, direct, and devoid of the legalese that typically accompanies such missives.
They all wanted Bezos to bring his company, Amazon, to the five boroughs.
“We, as a united body of elected officials, urge Amazon to make New York City the home of its second headquarters,” they wrote. “As the most dynamic and diverse city in the world, New York City will help propel Amazon’s future growth and kickstart an exciting new chapter in the company’s history.”
The letter came as Amazon, a virulently anti-union, trillion dollar corporation, had commenced its latest exercise in gross capitalism: pitting cities and towns against each other in a contest for its next headquarters. Just about every bidder, New York City included, promised to dangle the tax subsidies treasured by the world’s richest man.
The signees in 2017 were a diverse array of city and state politicians. They included a leading candidate for public advocate, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, and a potential rival for that same office, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The current public advocate, and attorney general-elect, Letitia James, signed the letter too, along with another top contender for the office, Assemblyman Michael Blake.
So did every single borough president, a large percentage of the city’s congressional delegation, and more than two dozen city council members.
Among the signees were the two Queens politicians now leading the fierce opposition to Amazon’s arrival in Long Island City: Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris.
“Everything has changed since then,” Van Bramer said in a statement. “A $3 billion subsidy and tax relief package to the wealthiest man in the world that bypasses meaningful and binding review were never discussed and had I known I would have never signed on.”
Gianaris, who said at a press conference yesterday he would stop shopping at Amazon, expressed similar sentiments. “When that letter was circulating over a year ago, we had no idea the state and city would secretly negotiate a gross and unprecedented giveaway to one of the wealthiest corporations on Earth,” Gianaris told Gothamist. “This deal is bad and I oppose it with all my might.”
Indeed, Amazon, with a valuation that more than doubles Walmart’s—the political class’s bête noire of the last decade—fleeced New York City. Combined city and state subsidies will reach around $3 billion, Amazon won’t pay property taxes on the state-owned land, and they get their much-derided helipad.
Given the attraction of the largest city in America—24-hour transit, an educated workforce, and endless entertainments to recruit talent—it’s unclear why Amazon needed such enticements in the first place, considering their hegemonic rivals, Google and Facebook, make do in Manhattan without such giveaways.
Many of the politicians are most aggrieved that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo brokered the deal to lure an Amazon HQ to New York in secret, bypassing the City Council’s unwieldy, but far more democratic, land use review process.
This has split the outrage over Amazon’s invasion into two categories: the zeitgeist-defining censure from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who focused chiefly on the fact that Amazon, such a profoundly wealthy and dominant corporation, is getting tax breaks to touch down in a part of Queens that has already chased out much of the working class and poor; and the anger from council members like Van Bramer, who bemoan Cuomo and de Blasio teaming up to usurp the legislature’s role in deciding how developments unfold.
Many of the signers of the 2017 letter, especially those with ambitions for higher office, have now adopted the rhetoric of revolution. A year later, it seems, they’ve discovered what most people who pay attention to the news have known all along—that Amazon has decimated many brick-and-mortar businesses, waged a destructive war against the publishing industry, exploited its underpaid warehouse workforce, aggressively pitched its facial recognition software to ICE, and invested an inordinate amount of time in breaking even the hints of unionization efforts among its workers.
"Amazon deserves tax breaks about as much as Trump deserves a medal of honor,” Mark-Viverito now says. “Our subway system is broken, NYCHA apartments are crumbling, and our elected officials are handing out piles of cash to Bezos instead of investing in working New Yorkers. The letter outlined why New York City is a great place to start a business; there was no discussion of tax incentives or abatements. We had believed the public review process would be done in a transparent way. That clearly is no what transpired."
Williams, the Working Families Party-endorsed candidate for public advocate, told the New York Post he saw the 2017 letter as simply the “beginning of a conversation.” Manhattan Councilman Ben Kallos, the only elected official at the anti-Amazon rally yesterday to acknowledge signing the letter, also said he “wanted to have a conversation” with Amazon and would not have agreed to $3 billion in tax subsidies.
One wonders which Amazon these progressive, labor-celebrating politicians were beholding a year ago, and how they fathomed any deal to lure the tech giant to New York City would not include hefty tax giveaways. This, after all, is Amazon’s modus operandi. Cities were happy to play along. New York politicians taking a moment to rediscover their common sense could have seen the writing on the wall when the mayor across the river, Ras Baraka of Newark, offered as much as $7 billion in subsidies for an Amazon HQ.
Did the outraged pols truly believe a governor with a history of cutting deals in secret and overriding city authority whenever possible would suddenly court Amazon in the sunlight? The question is not only which Amazon were they beholding, but which Andrew Cuomo?
And did they not understand Bezos, when judging where to undertake his next headquarters expansion/tax heist, would look kindly upon such a united political front, with so many New York elected officials declaring their unequivocal support for Amazon?
Like support for universal healthcare, opposition to Amazon will emerge, in New York at least, as a litmus test for all ladder-climbing politicians who want to claim the progressive mantle. Once again, Ocasio-Cortez has set the pace.
Not all elected officials were complicit, though, and should be recognized. 20-odd council members didn’t sign the letter, including the current speaker, Corey Johnson, who says the City Council is “reviewing our options” to fight the Amazon deal. Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, who penned a New York Times op-ed with Zephyr Teachout denouncing Amazon before the terms of the deal were even announced, has introduced legislation to slash economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt.
"There was a huge lost opportunity to leverage against a big mega corporation like Amazon instead of us competing for their attention," Kim said. "If we don’t take a stand here, this is a clear illustration we are living in an oligarchy, not a democracy."
One of the candidates for public advocate, Manhattan Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, also refused to sign the letter, unlike many of his colleagues in the state legislature.
“I’m asked to sign letters and support theoretical plans all the time,” he said. “But if I don't have the details in front of me, I’m not going to sign a blank check so they can be filled in later by the powers that be.”