Prime time: New York's Amazon fight returns in 2020 electionsDecember 8, 2019
NEW YORK — Democrats who torpedoed Amazon’s plans to set up a second headquarters in New York City are finding their stance could come back to bite them on the 2020 ballot.
Under pressure from liberal activists, a group of New York Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an unexpected victory when they drove one of the world’s wealthiest corporations, lured by the promise of $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies, to ditch its massive investment plans in Queens.
Now, in at least three 2020 races in the city, Democratic primary challengers are taking on leading Amazon opponents with an explicit appeal to voters who supported the corporation’s bid earlier this year to locate its second headquarters in Queens. In another race, an Amazon opponent is challenging a lawmaker who supported the plan.
Former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who is backing City Council Member Donovan Richards in his bid for Queens borough president against anti-Amazon Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, argues the Amazon fight was the tip of the iceberg of a broader anti-development movement holding back progress in the city.
“Amazon sort of is a poster child of the problem. But the problem, I think, runs a little deeper, which is sort of anti-growth, anti-development cancel culture mentality,” Glen told POLITICO.
Democrats who thought they were gaining political capital with the party’s ascendant left wing by fighting the tech behemoth will now find out whether their push translates into electoral support, or political backlash among many voters who favored the promise of thousands of new Amazon jobs, according to polls.
“At the end of the day, those people who are the most vociferous in their opposition to these important projects are not speaking for the majority of New Yorkers who want new jobs and more mixed-income housing,” Glen said. “I think this is fantastic that this is going to be an issue in the next election. It should be.”
City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who launched a primary challenge against Ocasio-Cortez, is making Ocasio-Cortez's opposition to Amazon’s Long Island City move a central point of his attacks. He said he expects interest groups to run ads going after her stance.
“They lost an opportunity that everybody else in America was fighting for,” Cabrera (D-Bronx) told POLITICO.
“It’s shocking that AOC had to put her two cents in there when she was totally misinformed and was clueless about the deal,” he said. “It tells you that she doesn’t have the judgment. She doesn’t understand how government works.”
Amazon chose the Long Island City waterfront along with northern Virginia to house its new campus a year ago after a nationwide contest, in a deal that had the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But after a flood of opposition from local politicians and activists — centered on the $3 billion the company was set to receive in tax breaks and subsidies, as well as its anti-union stance — Amazon abruptly pulled out of the deal in February.
Ocasio-Cortez said she has no regrets about the fight. The tech behemoth’s planned headquarters would have helped drive up rents and drive longtime Queens residents out of their homes, she said.
“What we were really seeing in that part of the district was a huge displacement and surge in rent,” she said. “We’ve seen the other Amazon headquarters that is starting to move forward in Virginia — we’re talking about rent prices surging for communities there anywhere between 10 percent and 20 percent already. And so right now, cost of living in our district is already getting to untenable levels. So I don’t think it’s an argument that holds much water.”
The freshman congresswoman pointed to Seattle, where Amazon spent heavily in an effort to influence local elections. Ocasio-Cortez said New York would have ended up in the same position “if we invited a bad actor into our city that did not want to negotiate, did not want to operate in good faith.”
State Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), who played a key role in scuttling the deal after being named to a seat on a board that could veto it, has drawn a primary challenger inspired by his opposition to Amazon.
Long Island City resident Justin Potter started a “Defeat Gianaris” website and Twitter account soon after the deal collapsed, and then jumped into the race himself.
“I was excited that Amazon might be coming to the neighborhood. I knew it would be a big challenge, but I knew we could handle it,” said Potter, who started his own e-commerce company.
A first-time candidate, he said he considered it his “civic duty” to make sure Gianaris had a challenge, and felt the incumbent opposed the tech behemoth for political reasons.
“It’s clear he ignored a majority of his constituents,” Potter said. “He was killing the deal for his own political benefit, and I found that very problematic.”
Polls found that a majority of voters citywide and in Queens supported the Amazon project, though they were more divided on the incentive package planned for the company.
“It’s spoken like someone who really does not have their finger on the pulse of the neighborhood and what people here actually deal with in their daily lives,” Gianaris said of his opponent’s charges that he ignored his constituents.
“There is incredible stress on the affordability of housing that would have gotten exponentially worse with that project,” he said. “The stress on the mass transit in that neighborhood is incredible, and that would have gotten worse.”
He said he’s not worried about the primary challenge. “If someone wants to run waving the flag of Amazon, they’re welcome to do it, and they will be soundly defeated.”
Gianaris and Ocasio-Cortez crowed this weekend when Amazon announced it would bring 1,500 office jobs to Midtown Manhattan without any incentives, but the announcement is not likely to slake critics in Queens who are still left out of the 25,000 jobs promised by the HQ2 expansion.
In the other direction, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Queens), who supported the Amazon project, is facing a primary challenger targeting her backing of the deal.
Mary Jobaida, an immigrant from Bangladesh, said she was already fed up with a host of neighborhood issues, and seeing Nolan speak in favor of Amazon was the last straw, spurring her to enter politics.
Few of her neighbors would have been qualified for the 25,000 jobs Amazon was dangling, she said.
“The people who are advocating for Amazon are either very selfish, well-off people who wouldn’t be impacted, or they were misguided,” Jobaida said.
Nolan did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon declined to comment for this story.
In a crowded race to replace Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, some contenders are lining up along lines drawn during the Amazon fight.
Van Bramer said he expects opponents to use his anti-Amazon stance against him, but he has found that voters who may have loosely favored the project appreciate his position once they learn more about it — especially Amazon’s treatment of workers and anti-union stance.
“I’m ready to fight that battle, and talk about the values that were behind that fight,” he said. “I firmly believe that the opposition is broader and deeper than many people think.”
But Richards said Queens constituents are missing the job opportunities Amazon promised to bring.
“You’re going to have to explain killing 25,000 jobs,” he said. “I think this is going to be continuously raised throughout the campaign. ... I don’t think I’m even going to have to be the one who raises it.”
“I’m not saying Amazon was going to save the world, because I would be foolish to say that, but at the end of the day this is $28 billion in revenue we could have leveraged,” Richards said.
The progressive activists, real estate interests and business owners who clashed over the HQ2 proposal have plenty of time to get involved in the still-forming races, but deep divides remain in the neighborhood and beyond.
Frank Raffaele, owner of the Long Island City-based coffee company, Coffeed, said the project would be a “primary factor” for many voters still seething over the deal’s collapse.
“The hangover is almost finished,” he said. “I think people really had a chance to reflect, and I think there’s a really strong sentiment, especially since that land is vacant, that something could have happened.”
Tania Mattos, the co-founder of Queens Neighborhoods United, countered that the uproar that greeted Amazon’s plans was more reflective of residents’ sentiments.
“The community spoke loud and clear on their position on Amazon,” she said.