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Amazon Ditched New York, but the Big Apple Isn’t Giving Up So Easily

Some Democratic leaders in New York won’t say goodbye to Jeff Bezos’s behemoth—and they’re becoming increasingly alienated from their own party

Andrew Cuomo, Jeff Bezos, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hovering over New York City Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Three weeks ago, Amazon canceled plans to build a secondary headquarters in Queens, New York.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—both Democrats—lobbied Amazon desperately for the pleasure of hosting the company’s secondary headquarters. Amazon promised to provide 25,000 new, full-time jobs in the host city; Cuomo and de Blasio offered Amazon nearly $3 billion in tax subsidies to win the company’s favor. Amazon announced the conclusion to its yearlong search for a headquarters four months ago, but only then did the political process for welcoming Amazon to New York seem to really begin. Quickly, local Democrats outlined their objections to the tax subsidies, among other concerns. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a socialist, contrasted the grand tax incentives for Amazon with the city’s distressed, dysfunctional infrastructure. New York state Senator Michael Gianaris characterized the tax incentives as “extortion,” an objection that might prove grueling and insurmountable given Gianaris’s appointment to the Public Authorities Control Board, which might have vetoed the Amazon tax package.

So Amazon walked—irretrievably, perhaps, but not for lack of further desperation from the governor of New York. On Thursday, The New York Times published a report about Cuomo’s backstage scrambling to rehabilitate the deal: In recent phone calls, Cuomo begged Jeff Bezos and other Amazon executives to reconsider. In the meantime, Cuomo, de Blasio, and other Amazon allies have blamed Ocasio-Cortez, in particular, for the deal’s collapse. De Blasio says Ocasio-Cortez misunderstood the tax incentives. Cuomo cites her midterm election upset as the political shift that empowered Gianaris and New York City Council Leader Jimmy van Bramer to oppose the deal they once advocated for. “They signed the darn application,” Cuomo told WNYC. “We win. The same people who sign it then say, ‘Oops, the politics changed, I changed my opinion.’”

Of course, New York Republicans have depicted the Democrats as cartoon communists who have, a month after assuming control of the New York state Senate, already ruined a perfectly respectable sellout. The billionaires, too, blame Ocasio-Cortez for interrogating de Blasio, Cuomo, and Amazon’s unaccountable alliance. President Donald Trump, who has locked himself into an unrelated feud with Bezos, has declined to delight in this particular hometown fiasco. But the anxiety of influence permeates this story of corporatism and local politics.

New York politics rarely resemble the national stage so precisely, but now here we are. Everyday, Ocasio-Cortez, a star freshman legislator, sits at the heart of national politics coverage, but she also sits alongside the 2020 presidential primary season, which features a couple dozen Democrats of fluctuating persuasions. Bernie Sanders is the leading candidate at this exact moment. Joe Biden, a far more conventional figurehead, is the undeclared front-runner. The remaining candidates are all splitting the difference between Sanders and Biden; Amy Klobuchar posits herself as a center-left alternative to Biden, while Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand all scramble to emulate Sanders however half-heartedly, or half-assedly, as any top Wall Street benefactor might masquerade as a socialist. Sanders has—to borrow Cuomo’s framing—radicalized the most ambitious Democratic figureheads overnight. He has thrown normie liberals, such as Booker and Gillibrand, into left-wing rebellion. Sanders has all but ensured that the Democratic primaries, and perhaps the general election, will be a referendum on socialism. Republicans look forward to pitting Trump against whichever Democrat manages to win a primary requiring some explicit deference—if not outright devotion—to socialism.

In New York, de Blasio and Cuomo have done more to discourage left-wing Democrats than any conservative proponents of the scuttled Amazon deal. The Republicans have all but faded from view as Cuomo alone scrambles to redeem the neoliberal project. In lobbying Amazon, de Blasio and Cuomo haven’t just undermined and contradicted the left; they have, for several months now, declined to carefully explain themselves and seriously engage their own party’s concerns. In national politics, senior Democrats struggle to process the left-wing enthusiasm that should ideally counteract Trump’s political movement. California Senator Dianne Feinstein has declared herself hostile to the Green New Deal. Harris has already hedged her commitment to “Medicare for all.” Booker is, to this day, begging Amazon to choose Newark.

If Biden runs, he will be the party’s largest conventional figure since, well, Hillary Clinton. (Howard Schultz is the most curmudgeonly opponent of the left-wing Democrats, but he’s running for president as an independent, so he barely counts for anything.) On Thursday, Biden erred in a foreign policy speech when he seemed to praise Vice President Mike Pence. Cynthia Nixon—an LGBTQ advocate and Cuomo’s recent Democratic primary rival in New York—criticized Biden for calling “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader” a “decent guy.” It was, in the grand scheme of Biden’s problems heading into the 2020 Democratic primaries, a minor faux pas. Biden might have simply ignored Nixon or, worse yet, whined about her as Cuomo did for six months. But Biden deferred to Nixon and the new left-wing mood. “You’re right, Cynthia,” Biden replied. “I was making a point in a foreign policy context,” he explained, “but there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.” The statement was thoughtful. It was agreeable. It was simple enough. You’re right, Cynthia. Imagine Andrew Cuomo saying that.