New York lost HQ2. How long will its strongest political opponents be smiling?

Michael Gianaris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jimmy Van Bramer.
Michael Gianaris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jimmy Van Bramer.
Photos courtesy New York Senate; by William Alatriste; by lev radin/Photo illustration Alex Law
Michael Gianaris, Jimmy Van Bramer and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

New York lost HQ2. How long will its strongest political opponents be smiling?

Amazon, we hardly knew you.
February 14, 2019

Amazon’s opponents may have won the battle, but they could lose the war.

Amazon dropped a bombshell Thursday morning in announcing that the company will not be bringing half of its second headquarters - HQ2 - to Long Island City as originally planned. While some of HQ2’s strongest opponents are hailing the about-face as a victory of progressive, grassroots organizing, the politicians who led the fight could pay a price.

Although Queens lawmakers like New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris weren’t alone in their opposition to Amazon, they were arguably the most public and vocal, along with a fellow member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents also parts of Queens. Van Bramer and Ocasio-Cortez celebrated Thursday’s news as a victory against corporate welfare and anti-union behavior, while Gianaris struck a slightly more moderate tone, saying that Amazon missed an opportunity. “Today’s behavior by Amazon shows why they would have been a bad partner for New York in any event,” he said in a statement. “Rather than seriously engage with the community they proposed to profoundly change, Amazon continued its effort to shakedown governments to get its way.”

But the celebration might not last long, especially if it turns out that public opinion was in favor of Amazon coming to Queens, as recent polls have suggested. A Siena College poll released this week reported that 56 percent of voters statewide were in favor of HQ2, while even larger shares of minorities, including black and Latino voters, in support. The Amazon deal promised to bring at leasts 25,000 jobs and an estimated $27.5 billion in tax revenue over 25 years, according to the head of Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm. In its announcement, Amazon said that it would continue to grow its existing (largely fulfillment center-based) workforce of over 5,000 across New York City.

Losing out on those benefits could cause political repercussions for HQ2’s strongest opponents in the long run, some experts say. “With things like this, there's often a kind of counterintuitive thing,” said Democratic political strategist Bruce Gyory. “Sometimes the winner of the battle can become the political loser, and vice-versa.”

While Ocasio-Cortez may be more removed from the situation, Van Bramer and Gianaris could face rivals in upcoming elections using any fallout from the loss of Amazon as fuel. Van Bramer, who wrap up his City Council tenure due to term limits in 2021, has said that he will run for Queens borough president, while Gianaris is free to run for reelection in the state Senate.

“I think unless something replaces Amazon really quickly, I think that a lot of people will be upset about the loss of the jobs,” said political consultant and former Ed Koch press secretary George Arzt. “I think there will be a negative pull against the main opposition players. They can face strong opponents the next time out.”

Since Amazon announced last November that it would split its second headquarters between Long Island City, Queens, and Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, some of New York’s more left-leaning politicians expressed disapproval ranging from dismay to outrage. At first, what rubbed them the wrong way was the nearly $3 billion worth of tax incentives and government subsidies New York had offered to Amazon – as well as the fact that neither the City Council nor the state Legislature would have approval over the deal. As time went on, more information was revealed at City Council hearings about the online retail giant’s questionable labor practices, resistance to unionization and skimpy efforts at community outreach.

Van Bramer, who belongs to the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, and Gianaris, who has scored progressive points over his opposition to HQ, may not only be the only ones to suffer if public opinion turns against them in losing HQ2. Queens has seen something of a progressive awakening in the past year – most notably with the election of political newcomer Ocasio-Cortez over established Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. With opponents of Amazon identifying so strongly with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, this could spell trouble for the movement in more general terms. “I think it could be perceived as a loss for the pure progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Gyory said. “I think it would be seen as the pure progressive wing of the Democratic Party had isolated itself from both public opinion and from how you generate economic growth.”

In a way, it would be a fitting postscript to the Amazon saga, which started with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiating the deal in secret and expecting to be hailed as heroes when it was revealed, only to face backlash from parts of their base.

In the years ahead, public opinion on whether New York made a mistake in driving away Amazon could depend in part on what the company contributes to Crystal City. Gyory thinks that if the country does face an economic recession in the next year, Crystal City’s Amazon headquarters could either be a beacon of hope in a tough economy or a pit. “Down in Virginia, if (the Amazon headquarters) is seen as becoming basically a magnet for high-tech jobs that really helps sustain Virginia in the middle of a recession, there are folks here who – to quote the old Lucille Ball show – are going to have lots of 'splaining to do,” Gyroy said.

In the whirlwind of reactions to Amazon’s cancelled plans – news that surprised most – supporters of the deal varied slightly in their placing of blame. While de Blasio shifted to sucking up to his liberal base by blaming Amazon for not sticking it out, Cuomo pointed to lawmakers as the culprits. “A small group politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community – which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City – the state's economic future and the best interests of the people of this state,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Amazon’s swift departure – before it had really even landed in Queens – seems surprising because there was so little negotiation (publicly, at least) between the company, local lawmakers, and de Blasio and Cuomo. One takeaway is that the loss of HQ2 may not have been the failure of one or a few, but of many. “The blame really has to go toward all sides here,” Arzt said. “The governor and the mayor didn't do outreach to community leaders before their press conference. Bezos could've given a little bit more. Instead of the opponents being so harshly against Amazon, they could have sat down and worked something out.”

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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