CAN Ama­zon get past Lone Star State’s cul­ture wars?

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - MITCHELL SCHNURMAN mschnur­man@dal­las­news.com

By the stan­dard met­rics, the Dal­las area should be a lead­ing con­tender to land Ama­zon’s next-gen­er­a­tion head­quar­ters.

It has the of­fice space, the land, the la­bor force, the trans­porta­tion net­work and the stom­ach to han­dle years of hefty tax­payer in­cen­tives.

The big un­known: Can Ama­zon get past the Lone Star State’s cul­ture wars?

It’s not only that Texas is a deep red state and Ama­zon’s home in Washington state is neon blue. On some key is­sues, in­clud­ing im­mi­gra­tion, LGBT rights and cli­mate change, Texas’ elected lead­ers are of­ten at odds with the pro­gres­sive val­ues of the online gi­ant.

Re­mem­ber the “bath­room bill” that roiled the Leg­is­la­ture this year? Ama­zon was one of 14 big com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Ap­ple, Google, Face­book and IBM, that wrote Gov. Greg Ab­bott in May, urg­ing him to re­ject the pro­posal.

The bill failed to get through, but Ab­bott added it to the spe­cial ses­sion, keep­ing the con­tro­versy alive. It failed again, in part be­cause busi­nesses ral­lied against it so strongly.

An­other cul­ture clash was ev­i­dent this month. Texas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton led the con­ser­va­tive charge to end the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram, known as DACA. With that le­gal chal­lenge loom­ing, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said he would end the pro­gram — al­though he’s now meet­ing with Congress to ex­tend it.

Sev­eral states promptly sued to pro­tect nearly 800,000 im­mi­grants who had been brought here as chil­dren. Ama­zon filed a dec­la­ra­tion of sup­port, say­ing it em­ployed nine Dream­ers and prob­a­bly many more.

“Ama­zon has al­ways been com­mit­ted to equal rights, tol­er­ance and diver­sity — and we al­ways will be,” the com­pany wrote.

In Jan­uary, Trump or­dered a travel ban from cer­tain Mus­lim coun­tries, and law­mak­ers from Texas were largely silent. But Ama­zon was among many com­pa­nies that spoke out. It ob­jected to the Trump administration, lob­bied Congress and joined a law­suit chal­leng­ing the or­der.

Jeff Be­zos, Ama­zon’s founder and CEO, pledged the com­pany’s full re­sources to help em­ploy­ees af­fected by the ban.

“We’re a na­tion of im­mi­grants whose di­verse back­grounds, ideas, and points of view have helped us build and

in­vent as a na­tion for over 240 years,” Be­zos wrote to em­ploy­ees.

That strong re­ac­tion re­flects the grow­ing im­por­tance of such is­sues in the work­place. In the past, com­pa­nies gen­er­ally avoided po­lit­i­cal and so­cial con­tro­ver­sies be­cause they would in­evitably alien­ate some peo­ple.

But to­day, more em­ploy­ers are ex­pected to take a pub­lic stand. If they’re silent, they can face a back­lash from work­ers and cus­tomers.

In Texas, the bath­room bill be­came a lit­mus test for many. Ab­bott and Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, who cham­pi­oned the bill for over two years, kept in­sist­ing that it wouldn’t hurt the state’s econ­omy or eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

What they missed — or re­fused to acknowledge — is that it tar­geted trans­gen­der peo­ple and sent a hos­tile mes­sage to the LGBTQ com­mu­nity.

That’s more than enough to scare off some com­pa­nies be­cause em­ploy­ers must com­pete hard for the best tal­ent, and they want to be part of com­mu­ni­ties that wel­come ev­ery­one.

How much of a fac­tor that will be in Ama­zon’s search for a se­cond home is not clear, but it is a fac­tor.

“The project re­quires a com­pat­i­ble cul­tural and com­mu­nity en­vi­ron­ment for its long-term suc­cess,” Ama­zon said in doc­u­ments out­lin­ing its ex­pan­sion plans and en­cour­ag­ing cities to sub­mit cre­ative bids.

That “in­cludes the pres­ence and sup­port of a di­verse pop­u­la­tion,” Ama­zon wrote.

The eco­nomic stakes of the Ama­zon deal are enor­mous — in­vest­ing up to $5 bil­lion even­tu­ally and hir­ing 50,000 work­ers at an av­er­age pay of $100,000 a year.

Ama­zon listed sev­eral other at­tributes in its com­mu­nity fit sec­tion, in­clud­ing ex­cel­lent schools and elected of­fi­cials who will be eager and will­ing to work with the com­pany. It also of­fered more hints in a news re­lease that kicked off the re­lo­ca­tion com­pe­ti­tion last week.

“We ex­pect HQ2 to be a full equal to our Seat­tle head­quar­ters,” Be­zos said.

Se­nior lead­ers across Ama­zon will de­cide whether to lo­cate their teams in Seat­tle or the new place, he said, and em­ploy­ees are ex­pected to have an op­tion to move if they pre­fer.

Even those who dis­agree with Texas pol­i­tics may be tempted by lower hous­ing prices and cost of liv­ing. They could also fo­cus on the city and re­gion, where there are some high-pro­file ex­am­ples of diver­sity and in­clu­sion.

Dal­las has had an or­di­nance pro­hibit­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion since 2002. Years later, Dal­las vot­ers over­whelm­ing ap­proved a sim­i­lar char­ter amend­ment that also pro­hib­ited dis­crim­i­na­tion on gen­der iden­tity and ex­pres­sion.

Dal­las County’s longserv­ing sher­iff, Lupe Valdez, is a His­panic les­bian who’s been fea­tured in an HBO doc­u­men­tary. Jess Herbst, mayor of New Hope in Collin County, is a trans­gen­der woman who tes­ti­fied against the bath­room bill.

She’s also urg­ing can­di­dates to run for of­fice, one re­sult of how the bath­room bill has gal­va­nized and em­bold­ened the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity.

On im­mi­gra­tion, cities are also push­ing back. This year, Texas passed a bill to ban so-called sanc­tu­ary cities and al­low law en­force­ment to ques­tion the im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus of any­one ar­rested or de­tained.

Dal­las, Hous­ton, Austin and San An­to­nio sued to stop the law from tak­ing ef­fect. Po­lice chiefs from the ma­jor cities op­posed the bill and ex­plained why in an op-ed.

Texas has a re­sis­tance, too.

Doug Strickland/The Associated Press

Texas’ flir­ta­tion with a “bath­room bill” sent a hos­tile mes­sage to the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. That’s more than enough to scare off some com­pa­nies be­cause em­ploy­ers must com­pete hard for the best tal­ent, and they want to be part of com­mu­ni­ties that wel­come ev­ery­one.

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