Not so fast, Mr. Mayor.
Back when Amazon first announced it would pit North American cities against each other in a cage match-style competition for its second headquarters, lawyers for the e-commerce giant were so concerned about showing any favoritism toward New York City that they vetoed a quote from the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, because it was too enthusiastic.
The incident happened in late September 2017, shortly after Amazon finalized a deal for new office space on Manhattan’s West Side, according to emails obtained by Fast Company. The West Side deal, which was separate from HQ2 but announced weeks after the much-ballyhooed search began, was for a 360,000-square-foot space that Amazon said would help create 2,000 new jobs.
As is standard practice, Amazon contacted De Blasio’s office to ask if the mayor wanted to release a statement for the press release about the West Side deal. De Blasio’s communications team quickly obliged:
This is a big vote of confidence in New York City. We have the most talented workforce and the most diverse economy in the country, and the world’s most innovative companies want to put down roots and grow here. We are excited to see Amazon bringing thousands more high-paying jobs to its New York City offices and increasing its footprint on the West Side.
But Amazon’s lawyers were apparently concerned that the statement was too pro-New York. “Our legal counsel has reviewed the quote as part of our regular approval process,” Adam Sedo, an Amazon spokesperson, wrote in an email to the mayor’s office. “As you know, we announced the search for Amazon HQ2 on September 7, and any investment we make public during the evaluation phase should be extremely neutral and impartial.”
As a fix, Amazon’s lawyers said they would prefer to include only the last sentence of the quote, Sedo wrote. That would mean cutting the sentence about Amazon’s new office space being a “big vote of confidence” in New York City, as well as the sentence that mentions the city’s “talented workforce” and “diverse economy.” Wiley Norvell, an aide to the mayor, responded by suggesting a compromise that would keep at least the second sentence.
In the end, De Blasio’s quote ran in Amazon’s press release with the “vote of confidence” line edited out. An Amazon spokesperson had no on-the-record comment.
Eric Phillips, press secretary for the mayor’s office, said it’s not unusual for mayoral staffers to collaborate with companies on the mayor’s press statements. “We work with outside companies, nonprofits, other governments, and outside organizations all the time to ensure we’re on the same page on how we communicate something of mutual interest,” Phillips wrote in an email to Fast Company. “And this situation was especially unique, given the gravity and sensitivity of the potential future deal.”
Still, Amazon’s sensitivity to a harmless line like “vote of confidence” indicates how overly cautious the company was in controlling the narrative around the HQ2 search. Although it’s hard to imagine Amazon knew where the search would lead that early in the process, as everyone now knows, it did ultimately choose New York City as the site of one of its locations. And in a surprise move, it also chose a second location, a northern Virginia city adjacent to Washington, D.C.
Many observers have speculated that Amazon had the search narrowed down well in advance (D.C., in particular, was an obvious choice, given its proximity to the federal government) and that it used the pretense of a nationwide competition as a way to extract more favorable tax incentives. The high-profile search, critics point out, also allowed Amazon to collect strategic data from the 238 locations that submitted bids.
“This was a massive reconnaissance mission that Amazon was highly successful at,” said Robert B. Engel of the Free & Fair Markets Initiative, a nonprofit coalition that has been critical of the HQ2 competition. “I think the decision of one or possibly two locations was made a long time ago. I’m not saying right from the beginning, but it didn’t take long for them to assess where they needed to be.”
Although it’s clear that many smaller competitors never had a chance, the eagerness among city officials to bend over backwards for the corporate behemoth reached levels so comical that they were spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
In New York’s case, though, the practical result of Amazon’s perceived leverage were billions of dollars in subsidies and incentives, along with real questions about whether the nation’s largest metropolis got what it paid for. Even as city and state lawmakers continue to crow about the deal, it’s not clear that supporting Amazon’s path to the city will translate to a political win. Just this week, De Blasio was booed at a Martin Luther King Jr. event after boasting that he “opened the doors of Amazon,” a line he clearly expected would garner applause.
Engel faults politicians for automatically starting with the assumption that winning Amazon would be good for their city without considering the long-term implications. “I absolutely believe these smaller communities were played,” he says. “A lot of people spent a lot of time, but think about how much data Amazon got from these 238 bidders.”