By Greg Scruggs
SEATTLE (Reuters) – The Seattle City Council voted unanimously on Monday to approve campaign finance legislation banning political donations in local elections from companies with at least 5% foreign ownership.
The Clean Campaigns Act makes Seattle the largest city with such a ban following St. Petersburg, Florida, which passed a similar ordinance in 2017.
Seattle’s move is widely viewed as an effort to curb online retailer Amazon.com Inc, the city’s largest employer, which has flexed its political muscle the past two years.
At least 9% of Amazon’s stock is owned by foreign investors, according to financial data provider Refinitiv.
Amazon poured a record $1.5 million into a political action committee (PAC) run by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to back a slate of candidates viewed as pro-business in the November council elections. Only two of seven candidates endorsed by the PAC won.
A spokesman for Amazon, which has been butting heads with the city for two years over attempts to levy more taxes on large employers, including Amazon, has declined to comment.
According to a memo prepared by a council analyst, in addition to Amazon, at least six other companies that were among the top 20 corporate contributors to PACs during the 2019 election cycle are at least 5% foreign-owned: AT&T Inc, Comcast Cable Communications, Expedia Ltd, Starbucks Corp, Weyerhaeuser Co and WSP USA.
“It’s disconcerting to see the Seattle City Council pick and choose who gets a voice in local elections, and when,” the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s chief of staff, Markham McIntyre, said in a statement.
Seattle’s law comes a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on political contributions by corporations or unions in the landmark Citizens United case.
“It does make it look like it’s an end run around Citizens United,” said Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. “Corporate decision-making process and who owns shares are two totally different things,” he said.
Ron Fein, legal director for government watchdog Free Speech for People, which consulted on the bill, denied it was written as a test case to overturn Citizens United.
“Just like foreign investors have long been prohibited from spending their own money in elections, they shouldn’t be allowed to influence a corporation to spend company money to do what they can’t do directly,” said Fein, saying that the bill “sets a new model for protecting democratic self-government.”
(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)