Amazon prides itself on knowing what consumers want — often even before they know themselves. But when it comes to the Queens borough of New York, Michael Gianaris is convinced he knows better than the tech giant.
Mr Gianaris, a child of Greek immigrants, has spent virtually his entire life in the borough’s Astoria neighbourhood. He was born there and attended its public schools. The only appreciable period he has spent away was his time at Harvard Law School — although he returned soon after graduating and entered local politics.
“I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of this neighbourhood better than anybody else,” Mr Gianaris said. “I walk these streets. I live here. Other people don’t.”
That native knowledge might explain why Mr Gianaris, now a Democratic state Senator, has been so effective in leading opposition to Amazon’s plan to build a satellite headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.
Amazon announced its plans in November after an exhaustive, nationwide competition in which hundreds of cities vied for the tech giant’s favour. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor who led Amazon’s recruitment, celebrated the outcome as the city’s greatest ever economic development win. The company has pledged to create 25,000 well-paying jobs over 10 years.
Rather than celebrate Mr Gianaris began questioning the cost of luring Amazon: some $3bn in tax incentives that he and other opponents likened to corporate welfare at a time when the neighbourhood’s schools and transit networks are under strain.
“The fact that Amazon is slated to receive $3bn and the governor has identified a $2.6bn budget shortfall does not require a mathematical genius to figure out the connection between these two,” Mr Gianaris said.
Such resistance once seemed quixotic. But it entered a new phase last week when fellow Democrats broke with Mr Cuomo to appoint Mr Gianaris to a three-member state review board, giving him potential veto power over the agreement. Mr Gianaris then proposed legislation that would limit some tax benefits for the company.
Soon it was revealed that Amazon was having second thoughts about Queens. Executives have been riled by the local hostility they have encountered, which they had not anticipated and is in sharp contrast to the loving embrace they have received in Virginia, the location they selected for another satellite headquarters.
They are particularly concerned, according to a person briefed on Amazon’s deliberations, about demands to allow its New York workers to unionise — something the company has refused elsewhere.
“Amazon is a non-union company and did not realise this would have to change in New York,” this person said.
If it so decided, Amazon could easily bolt: it has not signed a formal lease or broken ground on the new campus. Another suitor, nearby Newark, New Jersey, has offered $7bn in tax incentives.
Flummoxed Cuomo aides initially assumed Mr Gianaris and other local politicians were merely sore at being cut out of the big deal. Politicians, as one observed, are always against backroom deals when they are not in the room. After some grandstanding they would eventually fall in line.
But, unlike other critics, Mr Gianaris has so far refused to even take a meeting with Amazon executives to discuss the deal, demanding that it first be scrapped.
“Gianaris has outplayed Cuomo,” one New York property executive remarked — although it was still early innings.
Like other observers, the executive believed Mr Gianaris was trying to appeal to a small but vocal minority of leftwing activists in hopes of heading off a challenge from the progressive wing of the party led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old shocked the Democratic establishment by defeating longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in last year’s primary to represent parts of Queens and the Bronx in Congress. “AOC is the ruler of Queens now, not Joe Crowley,” one Cuomo aide said.
Mr Cuomo seemed to have that in mind on Friday when he accused opponents of “pandering” to fringe activists and committing “governmental malpractice” and warned that they would bear the consequences if Amazon withdrew.
Mr Gianaris sounded more bemused than upset, urging the governor to “stop throwing tantrums and focus on the fact that he cut a secretive deal that’s bad for New York”.
His cause has been helped by the fact that Google and Facebook have each added thousands of jobs in New York City in recent months with little fanfare or special tax breaks — something that even Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor, has pointed out. The real lure was the city’s tech talent.
Mr Gianaris and Mr Cuomo have history: Mr Gianaris worked for Mr Cuomo’s father, Mario, as the then-governor’s liaison to Queens. While they have known each other for years, they are not particularly close.
At one time Mr Gianaris was mentioned as a possible successor to Eliot Spitzer as New York attorney-general — although the post instead went to Mr Cuomo, en route to the governor’s mansion.
Mr Gianaris instead remained in the heavily Greek part of Queens to which his father, Nicholas, emigrated in 1961. He came from Kalavryta, a Greek town in the Peloponnese that was the site of an infamous Nazi massacre in 1943. In reprisal for attacks by Greek guerrillas, the Germans rounded up and shot more than a thousand male inhabitants and burnt villages to the ground. “My father was a young boy at the time,” Mr Gianaris said.
After coming to New York as a graduate student the elder Mr Gianaris became a statistics professor at New York’s Fordham University — where his son would excel before going on to Harvard.
“He went to law school. He left. He didn’t have to come back, but he did,” said Kimberly Mullarkey, 38, a third-generation Astorian and fellow member of the local Taminent Regular Democratic Club.
Ms Mullarkey was impressed by the way Mr Gianaris took on utility Con Edison after Queens was stricken by an agonising 17-day blackout in 2006. “He’s a fighter. He’s willing to go against the big guys,” she said.
The Amazon issue was more complicated, Ms Mullarkey allowed. While she is hardly a Democratic Socialist in the mould of Ms Ocasio-Cortez, she expressed misgivings about the company — both the secretive way in which its deal was negotiated and what its arrival might mean to the mom-and-pop shops that are still the fabric of the neighbourhood.
“It’s a difficult decision,” she said, adding: “I don’t think [Mayor Bill] De Blasio understands this neighbourhood. I don’t think the Governor does, either.”
Amazon and its backers are still hopeful. A recent poll it commissioned showed that more than 70 per cent of Queens residents supported its plans. With time, they believe the rhetoric surrounding the company will ease and residents will be able to make a dispassionate examination of the numbers.
The $3bn in tax incentives, Mr Cuomo insists, will be more than offset by some $27bn in projected tax revenue. Moreover, those incentives only accrue as Amazon invests. “There is no business that brings 25,000 jobs any more!” Mr Cuomo reminded New Yorkers on Friday. “They don’t exist. I spend days trying to bring a business that has a hundred jobs or two-hundred jobs.”
But Mr Gianaris, living among his constituents, is convinced he knows better. “Either Amazon or the governor will realise this deal is a non-starter,” he predicted.