Leftist provocateurs are demanding that Mayor Muriel Bowser fully release the incentives D.C. has offered Amazon to woo the company’s second headquarters.
On Thursday night, a small group affiliated with the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America disrupted Bowser’s second of three “budget engagement forums” this year, which took place at Watkins Elementary School in Capitol Hill. As residents and District officials entered the school, the group projected their counter-campaign logo onto the building—à la Robin Bell at the Trump Hotel.
The logo read “Alexa, go away!” referring to the sometimes-soothing, sometimes-snappy, disembodied voice on Amazon Echo devices. Its design mirrored that of the Bowser administration’s campaign logo, which poses the prompt: “Alexa, Why DC?”
Inside the school, when Bowser addressed the dozens of forum attendees from the stage of the gym, the protesters broke out in shouts. They carried a bare-bones sign that said “Fund Communities Not AMAZON!” They yelled, “Money for schools!” “Money for housing!” “What’s in the mayor’s proposal to Amazon?” “What are the incentives, Mayor Bowser?” and “Why did you sign a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon?”
The mayor kept speaking at the microphone in spite of these cries. “Who wants to talk about the budget?” she asked the audience, receiving cheers and applause. “We want to ask our friends to not interrupt.”
When this failed to quell the demonstrators, she repeated “thank you” ten times. “We heard your message loud and clear, everybody sees it,” Bowser continued. “You may exit to, right behind you.”
The group left the gym.
For the rest of the night, the forum proceeded uninterrupted. Participants hashed out how to divide up a theoretical $100 across a few different priorities for government spending, like education and affordable housing. In addition to residents, several Bowser Cabinet members and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson attended.
But the counter-campaign against luring Amazon’s second headquarters with multimillion-dollar incentives didn’t stop there. Metro DC DSA has launched an “ObviouslyNotDC” website that lays out the case of “what we could do with $1 billion in DC.”
In a statement, Metro DC DSA Chair Margaret McLaughlin says the District shouldn’t “gift” Amazon taxpayer money and that doing so would benefit the company and its owner Jeff Bezos, not residents. “Amazon has shown time and again that they are willing to suck up public money and take no responsibility for their impact on communities,” McLaughlin says. “We see it in Seattle where housing costs have skyrocketed, homelessness has surged, and long-time residents have been pushed out.” (Amazon has not responded to a request for comment.)
The Fair Budget Coalition, a progressive D.C. group with more than 60 member organizations, also opposes subsidizing Amazon. The group is circulating a petition that calls on Bowser and the D.C. Council to reject that action. “This year, the Mayor, Council and Administration must prioritize the District’s Black and Brown residents over the world’s wealthiest people and businesses,” the coalition says in the petition. “They must fund housing security, food access, healthcare, community safety, and economic justice before lining the pockets of the richest man in the world and those like him.”
But some economic experts and D.C. officials say the second Amazon headquarters would add more revenue to the District’s coffers, allowing for greater social services and community investments. Writing in the Washington Business Journal last week, former D.C. Tax Revision Commission director and Downtown Business Improvement District executive Gerry Widdicombe argued that “the key question is how the city will harvest the benefits of Amazon HQ2 to offset the negative aspects of Amazon HQ2 as well as contribute to the city’s progressive agenda (with a focus on addressing recent income inequality trends).”
“The key to making an incentive package work for all city residents is that the District government makes its incentive package contingent on when Amazon occupies office space and when Amazon hires D.C. residents, and dedicates a significant portion of the net new tax revenues generated by Amazon HQ2 to funding investments to offset the negative impacts,” Widdicombe wrote.
Others have taken a middle position. At a candidate debate earlier this month, Mendelson, the Council chairman, who is up for re-election, said he would not support tax incentives for Amazon beyond what is already in the law. D.C. has an incentives program for technology companies that is based on job and other requirements, and that has helped bring companies like Yelp to the District.
“I don’t favor additional tax incentives in this case, I just don’t,” Mendelson said. “I think that these tend to be money losers. It’s kind of exciting to get this big name company. But the goal with economic development is that we get more revenue to the city, and if we are instead giving out a lot of incentives, then we’re frustrating that goal.”