Amazon Tried To Help New York City — AOC Said “Scram”
A working-class neighborhood in Queens was about to experience a miracle. Then AOC and Mike Gianaris intervened.
Ben McVane was at the “epicenter of the epicenter of coronavirus.” He’s not complaining, however, it’s where he spends his days, where he chooses to be, as you’ll see.
As McVane related to the New York Times, “When I walk to work, I see women selling tamales and smell the strong Colombian coffee. Now, I see patients intubated and sedated,” and wondering out loud, he asked, “Why has it hit Elmhurst so hard?”
We should take his question seriously. McVane is an Emergency Room doc at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. More than a great doctor, he has substantial expertise in non-medical issues, completing an undergraduate degree in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia before he obtained his medical degree at Columbia University and emergency medicine residency at Mount Sinai. But his real passion is human rights. His work has taken him to refugee camps in Greece, Bangladesh, and Mexico. It is McVane’s experience with vulnerable populations that gives him insight into his patients at Elmhurst Hospital: “The people are immigrants, poor, and uninsured.”
Up From Nothing
Twenty-five thousand high paying jobs with outstanding healthcare insurance were heading towards Elmhurst and the surrounding neighborhoods, a gift from Amazon. The company canvassed the United States, and while there were digital-friendly metro areas like Austin or Denver for its HQ2, something about the gritty neighborhood where people sell tamales got the company’s attention. McVane’s wish was about to be granted.
The backstory, as some might be surprised to learn, is the mega-billionaire founder of Amazon feels more at home eating ethnic food than fancy canapes.
Jeff Bezos was born in 1964 in New Mexico, the son of a teenage single mom. His mother remarried Mike Bezos, a Cuban immigrant who adopted Jeff when he was four, and the family moved to Miami to be closer to Cuban relatives. Young Jeff showed promise. He was his high school valedictorian before heading off to Princeton, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1986.
Bezos has a habit of starting at the bottom and figuring out how to rise to the top. He became the youngest vice president in history at his Wall Street firm before embarking on a drive to Seattle. On July 16, 1995, he launched a strange-sounding online store by the name of Amazon long before there was a thing called eCommerce. After Bezos wrote the software, the company started making $20,000 per week and by 2018 reached a value of over $1 trillion.
Today, Bezos may be the world’s most prosperous individual, but he is still the child of an unwed teenage mother and a Cuban immigrant — which brings us back to Queens.
Media and Manipulation
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is adhering to that old rule, “follow the money.”
Elmhurst is 12-minutes from where Amazon was going to locate HQ2 in Long Island City. A wave of fruitful after-effects would have rained on Elmhurst, including 25,000 new Amazon salaries, healthcare benefits, tuition reimbursement, and hi-tech training. When jobs and skill training meet hard-working, entrepreneurial immigrants described by Dr. McVane, the result is a mercurial thing called prosperity. In laymen’s terms, it means parents afford college tuition, children grow up to be doctors and bankers, and they buy homes and cars. That sounds like the kind of neighborhood that survives a pandemic. But it never had a chance.
Labor unions bullied — or perhaps a better word is bribed — politicians to retaliate against the company after it announced intentions to locate in Queens. The company’s formidable growth makes it the second-largest employer in the country with the highest pay and benefits in jobs of their kind, and that is the main reason unions don’t want it on their turf. When word went out Amazon was coming to town, the unions dismissed the benefits of health insurance, tuition reimbursement, and tech training. They sent a firm message to two of their handpicked pols: “tell the company to scram.”
The attack strategy was led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, better known as AOC, through her social media account followers.
She cleverly sidestepped any conflict of interest by adhering to that old rule, “follow the money.” While she tried to evict the company from Queens, significant campaign contributions were pouring in from people at Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, as the Campaign finance graphic demonstrates. Living with contradictions is the first lesson of Party politics.
The foot soldier in the battle was State Senator Michael Gianaris. He played Amazon’s chief antagonist while his labor union cronies called the shots, as you can see from the Gianaris Finances chart.
When Jeff Bezos raised Amazon’s minimum wage to $15, he earned rare praise from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but the honeymoon was short-lived. While the media paid scant attention, labor unions went on the attack. The rationale was clear. With salaries now over $35,000, unions were able to ‘afford’ to organize. It became a growth opportunity for them.
If Bezos didn’t immediately recognize that HQ2 would backfire, it didn’t take long for unions to send the message. Eventually, he capitulated, writing, “While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans, local politicians will not work with us.”
While Governor Andrew Cuomo was a cheerleader for HQ2, New York’s local politicians made it sound like Amazon was coming to destroy the neighborhood. The ploy transformed the company from a corporate first responder to a B movie alien.
The media joined the battle. Typical of populist journalists, most of whom were unknown bloggers until social media came along, was the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull. Her flagrant bias was no less evident than if she carried a placard that said, “Amazon keep out.” Although Mull isn’t a business reporter, she tweeted, “That New Yorkers Chased amazon out makes me proud.” She was not working on an Amazon story, and she does not live in Amazon HQ’s vicinity. Her attack was an attention grab disguised as virtue mongering, and it stepped over all bounds of professional journalism. The good news, at least for Mull if not Elmhurst, the tweet sent her social media following to a multiple of 30,000. It is the level at which one becomes an influencer, although not necessarily a credible journalist.
Who’s Crying Now?
On February 19, 2019, Amazon announced it would no longer pursue HQ2 in Queens. The company noted, “We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion — we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture.” And so the real victims in the Elmhurst Hospital ER are left in the lurch. Politics isn’t their game. When they go back to selling tamales, they’ll wonder where those Amazon jobs went.
When Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” she didn’t realize that breathing is the symbol of the pandemic of 2020, just as ventilators are its salvation. Unfortunately, so is the hot air of politics.