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