Torpy at Large: Will religious liberty bill cast out Amazon?

6:00 a.m. Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Local

The Great Amazon Sweepstakes is raging across North America.

Some two dozen cities are waging intense campaigns to snag the White Whale of commercial development, the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters. But in this hunt (as opposed to Captain Ahab’s pursuit) one city will actually capture the beast, which is the company’s $5 billion investment and 50,000 high-end jobs.

It would be a once-in-a-generation payoff for some lucky city.

Currently, Atlanta is that city, according to Irish bookmaker Paddy Powers, which as of Thursday gave the city 3-1 odds over Austin and Boston, which were 7-1. (Atlanta was 2-1 earlier in the week.)

In a story about those odds, Fortune magazine noted Atlanta’s airport and technical workforce as reasons to pick the city and said that the “novelty wager” isn’t such a crazy vehicle to predict the future.

“The idea is that ‘crowdsourcing’ is an effective way to find accurate information, especially when (as here) people have skin in the game in the form of a bet,” the magazine says.

That is, people who know something might be putting their money where their extremely closed mouths are.

As a metro Atlanta resident, I’m happy to see Atlanta getting such love. The quest for Amazon HQ2 has been referred to as “Olympian,” and, as I recall, we did pretty well in that chase.

Metro Atlanta is near the top in having Fortune 500 HQs settle here. The Beltline in Atlanta has kicked off an intown renaissance. The housing stock is (comparatively) affordable. Our universities are top-notch and our business execs can often out-ruthless yours. And we are set to drive a Brinks truck full of incentives to Amazon to win over their money-making hearts, just like every other town is ready to do.

So, should we start brushing up our résumés to get Amazon jobs?

Well, there’s lots of great things going on in support of our metropolis. (Did I mention all the great restaurants?) But our traffic consistently gets crummy marks, and our transit system doesn’t get people to as many places as they might like to go.

Plus, there are a couple of concerns that are cause for us to stay guarded: the ever-looming threat of religious liberty legislation and the still-unfolding Atlanta bribery-for-contracts story, a brewing scandal where a federal prosecutor called corruption at City Hall “prolific.”

Amazon is from Seattle, where scandal is infrequent and good government goo-goos rule. The ongoing City Hall scandal here is the third major corruption outbreak in the past 25 years. Do such things matter to those who are scouting out a city for potential business?

“You’re damn right it matters,” said a one-time prosecutor who works at a big-time law firm. It’s not the top consideration, but it certainly is in the mix, said the lawyer — a fellow who’s usually very loquacious. I asked why he didn’t want to talk more about this or add his name to the story.

“This is so hard to talk about when so many people’s business counts on this,” he said.

Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

The more-pressing realistic deal killer is the spate of religious liberty bills that conservative lawmakers want to pass. These, of course, are the bills that protect bakers from having to create wedding cakes when a couple of dudes decide to get married.

The battles are largely symbolic, but they fire up the conservative base. All four Republican candidates for governor have pledged that they’d sign such legislation if they were elected, and it was passed again by the General Assembly. This comes after the Metro Atlanta Chamber and other business leaders begged them to stay away from this mess. Big companies want to avoid such battles when locating their businesses.

Bob Andres/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gov. Nathan Deal greats lawmakers after delivering his 2017 State of the State address in January before a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal did the smart thing and vetoed such a bill. He could be brave because he doesn’t have a political future. He’s headed to a porch swing in Gainesville after next year. The others realize that about six out of 10 Republicans in Georgia opposed what old Nate did with his veto pen.

So, even though they know it will be a blunder on the business end, they’re scared to say so out loud, knowing that the other candidates will carve them up in next year’s GOP primary.

The trick will be in how they are able to stay true to the base while sucking up to the fellow who owns The Washington Post — and Amazon. And that would be Jeff Bezos.

Casey Sykes /casey.sykes@ajc.com
The High Street property in Atlanta. The site is a possible location for Amazon’s second headquarters should the company choose Atlanta as the host city for its new home away from home.

Bezos is said to be a libertarian, but he has mostly given to Democratic candidates, and in 2012 he donated $2.5 million to a campaign working to defend gay marriage in Washington state.

Last Monday, Gov. Deal’s chief of staff urged his fellow Republicans to ixnay religious libertay, saying such boisterous red meat issues might take Georgia off Amazon’s mind.

“There are concerns about the rhetoric in a political campaign, about what’s being spoken,” said Chris Riley, adding that CEOs are watching such efforts here and elsewhere.

I called A.D. Frazier, a former banker who was Billy Payne’s No. 2 running the Olympics, and asked him about the intersection of business and politics.

“Religious liberty is a wedge issue that is easy and simple to rally around but incredibly toxic when you have to live with it,” he said.

He said such litmus tests “are not fair to those of us who want to choose government officials on a broader set of issues.”

On the corruption issue, Frazier said the massive school cheating/score inflating scandal from several years ago was worse for the city’s image than the budding bribery scandal.

“They can fix this,” he said, adding that other cities have such scandals from time to time.

But religious liberty? “It’s like the ink drop in the water. It colors the entire debate.”

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