Can a new Amazon HQ liberalize a devout, red-state America? The Washington Post weighs in

It has been fun following Amazon’s search for a new headquarters city in the past few months. 

On Saturday, while waiting for my kid’s soccer game to finish, I dashed into the local (Seattle suburb) Starbucks for a quick pickup when what should I see on the front page of the Seattle Times, but a piece by the Washington Post: “The unspoken factor in Amazon’s search for a new home: Jeff Bezo’s support for gay rights.”

Well, you heard it here first.

As tmatt suggested in January, Amazon may use its massive influence to persuade certain red-state cities to soften up their stance on certain culture wars issues (ie transgender people and public restroom access) to be awarded the title of HQ2. I wrote a similar post in February after the list of the 20 finalist cities was published. And you know what? We were right.

What’s interesting in this latest installment of the Amazon-needs-a-new-home saga is that the religious element is front and center:

When Amazon executives recently toured the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one of 20 finalists for a second company headquarters, local officials touted its growing workforce and low taxes as perfectly suited to accommodate 50,000 planned Amazon jobs.
But the local team also brought an unexpected guest: the Rev. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, pastor of a predominantly gay megachurch in Dallas. He impressed upon the Amazon representatives how inclusive and welcoming the community has been to him, his husband and the 4,000 congregants at his church, according to people familiar with the meeting.
In the high-stakes contest to become Amazon’s new location, it may have been a shrewd move. Although the company’s search materials don’t make it explicit, Amazon has quietly made rights for and acceptance of gay and transgender people part of its criteria in choosing a second headquarters, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

Cazares-Thomas pastors Cathedral of Hope, a United Church of Christ congregation, for those of you interested in such fact-driven religious details. The UCC is, of course, a trailblazing flock on the left edge of liberal Protestantism in America.

As Amazon executives recently toured finalist locations to help select what they’ve dubbed HQ2, they asked public officials about what sort of “compatible cultural and community environment” -- the wording from the company’s search parameters -- each city offers, adding to speculation about whether Amazon will choose a liberal stronghold.

The article goes on to talk about officials in North Carolina and the state's bathroom bill and legislation in Georgia that could restrict same-sex adoption as deal breakers for Amazon. 

I will say the article did try to get both sides of the story by quoting a Georgia legislator who dared to say no to Amazon.

The sponsor of the Georgia bill, Republican State Sen. William T. Ligon Jr., said the issue of same-sex adoption wasn’t intended to be discriminatory. In his view, the legislation would benefit children because church-based adoption agencies would shut down if they were forced to serve same-sex couples.
Ligon said he hoped any company would support the bill.
“If you’re against, then I think we need to think hard about whether you ought to come here,” he said. “We need to seriously consider whether we want you to come here.”
That sentiment has not played well at Amazon, according to a person who has been on tour with Amazon as it met with local officials. “I just think Atlanta’s out,” said the person, who is not an Amazon employee.

The article is quite long and details Bezos’ history of supporting gay-rights causes and whether Amazon should locate in a more gay-friendly blue state where the expenses are higher or in a lower-cost red state.

There are several schools of thought on this, as some gay-rights activists think Amazon should aim for more conservative area in hopes of using the company's clout to help change the local zeitgeist.

Harnessing the publicity surrounding his company’s headquarters to advance such a cause would be a significant departure from how Bezos has led Amazon.
And some business and relocation experts are still skeptical that LGBT rights will be a major factor. If Bezos opts for a liberal stronghold such as Boston or New York City, he will do so knowing it will cost his company more in taxes and salaries.
“It’s fairly shortsighted to think a business decision like this is likely to be based on one policy, particularly a social one,” said Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies who has studied HQ2.

But at the end, the clergyman re-enters the story.

When Amazon made its visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Cazares-Thomas talked about how at home he’d felt there after moving from Los Angeles, even though he’d previously had misgivings about raising a family as a gay man in Texas, according to a person who attended the meeting …
Amazon’s “reaction was really positive. It introduced them to a side of the community that they weren’t aware of,” the person said. “They came in with some preconceived notions of what Dallas is, some of them accurate but some of them in need of a little updating.”

Amazon’s final decision will be dissected at length, no matter what it is. Here’s my question: Everyone’s suggesting that Amazon can push the gay rights issue by relocating to and bringing pressure upon a red state. Do we know that is true?

The Seattle area was already liberal before Amazon set foot here. One way we can measure liberal vs. conservative stances is through religious adherence polls and we know Washington state was already among the country’s lowest before Amazon really geared up. But if you compare Gallup’s 2008 data, you’ll see that Washington has basically stayed the same over the past 10 years as Amazon has expanded here. Only Oregon has moved upward on the non-religious scale.

But if you look at a 2004 Gallup survey, you see Oregon, Idaho and Washington as the top three unchurched states and I remember hearing similar data ever since my family moved to the Seattle area in 1971.

So, the idea that one company has the power to change the local culture remains unproven, at least in my book. So as we write those Great Hunt for HQ2 stories, keep that in mind.

The above art is a promotional graphic by Kankakee County, Illinois, imagining the road to "Amazon City."

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