Amazon has hired Hilltop Public Solutions, a political consulting firm, to publicize what the Seattle company is doing in Colorado.
From opening three warehouses in the state since 2016 to naming Denver a finalist for its proposed second headquarters, Amazon’s interest in Colorado has grown beyond selling goods to residents. The company, which employs about 2,500 in the Denver area and lists more than 100 job openings here, is following legislation to help shape its future in Colorado
But while the Washington-based Hilltop — whose Denver office is led by Craig Hughes, a former senior adviser on Barack Obama’s two Colorado campaigns — is deeply connected to the Democratic party, its role in Amazon’s emergence in Colorado isn’t about politics, said Lauren Lynch, an Amazon spokeswoman.
“We’ve used Hilltop and other consulting firms across the country for years for their local knowledge, press relationships and community engagement know-how since it’s difficult for me personally to learn the nuances of each community where Amazon fulfillment centers reside,” Lynch said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “Hilltop isn’t lobbying for their Amazon PR client; they’re pitching media, advising and helping us with community events. We use them in multiple states.”
In July, Hilltop helped Amazon spread the word that the company has begun hiring for 1,500 jobs at its new fulfillment center in Thornton. The jobs pay up to $14.25 an hour and include health benefits and retirement options for full-time workers. The facility is Amazon’s third warehouse in the state.
But as Amazon continues to expand operations — its first Colorado bookstore is “coming soon” to the Park Meadows mall in Lone Tree — citizens are split about whether to welcome the retail behemoth or tell it to bug off and take its potential 50,000 HQ2 jobs and congestion with it.
Hughes, with Hilltop, did not respond to questions about what the company does for clients.
On its site, Hilltop says the agency focuses on helping clients “achieve your policy goals.” It also touts a “network of public affairs professionals to help our clients inject their voices into local policy debate.”
In Colorado, the Denver PR agency isn’t a registered lobbyist. Neither is Hughes, who let his state registration expire last year. Staff members working with Amazon include Westminster Mayor Pro Tem Maria De Cambra and Chris Griswold, who worked as a legislative assistant to state Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville.
Amazon has worked with state-level lobbyists since at least 2010 to push for favorable legislation, primarily by opposing Colorado’s bid to make out-of-state retailers collect sales tax. Investment, however, was minimal until about two years ago, as the company began opening warehouses and hiring employees in the Denver region.
Three registered lobbyists have been active at one time or another in Colorado on behalf of Amazon, according to the state Secretary of State records.
The most active has been Denver lobbyist Margaret-Mary “Peggi” O’Keefe.
O’Keefe has done work for Amazon since at least 2010, when it opposed the passage of a Colorado law to make out-of-state online retailers tell customers how much sales tax they owe the state. (Amazon started collecting sales tax on purchases in Colorado in 2016, the same year it opened its first warehouse in the state.)
O’Keefe, a 1997 University of Denver law school graduate, initially worked with Amazon while at Axiom Strategies and continued the relationship when she started her own company, Clear Strategies, in 2011.
Asked what Amazon is concerned with regarding Colorado policy, O’Keefe referred questions back to Amazon.
Lynch said Amazon doesn’t comment on future plans.
Over the years, documents show O’Keefe monitored bills for Amazon related to sales tax laws from earlier in the decade to the more recent bills regulating autonomous vehicles and data privacy breaches.
On behalf of Amazon, she opposed last session’s Senate Bill 243, which put more limits on alcohol delivery, and pushed to amend House Bill 1314, which bans unmanned aircraft (drones) from disrupting police and other emergency services. Both bills passed.
Since 2013, Amazon has paid O’Keefe at least $106,500, with nearly half paid since early 2016, according to state filings.
Nationwide, Amazon ramped up its lobbying efforts last year, spending nearly $13 million. That’s up from about $2.5 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Senate Office of Public Records.
Whatever amount Amazon spends on lobbying is a pittance, said John Holcomb, a professor at the Daniels College of Business at DU. The company has become so large, its sway extends well outside the statehouse. That’s why it can ask the country where it should build another headquarters — and hear back from more than 230 places pitching their towns and offering incentive packages, he said.
“It becomes even more perverse when they have the ability to play one state off another. Here’s what Colorado said it will do. What about Texas? They’re ratcheting up what they can do with subsidies, access ramps to interstates,” said Holcomb, who teaches in the Business Ethics and Legal Studies department. “…That, I would say, is above and beyond. That overshadows the lobbying game. What they pay the consultant or lobbyist is not a good measure of their overall influence.”
Amazon’s legislative interests in Colorado
Here are the bills Amazon has followed through hired lobbyists, the position the company took, a link to the bill and the bill’s status.
- House Bill 1189 Opposing Eliminate Sales Tax Exemption for Direct Mail (passed)
- House Bill 1193 Opposing Sales Tax Out-of-State Retailers (passed)
- House Bill 1288 Monitoring Uniform Sales and Use Tax (passed)
- House Bill 1295 Monitoring Simplify Sales Tax for Market Place Fairness (passed)
- House Bill 1312 Opposing When Retailers Must Collect Sales Tax (tabled)
- House Bill 1269 Opposing Marketplace Fairness & Small Business Protection (passed)
- Senate Bill 213 Monitoring Autonomous Vehicles: Authorizing for automated driving systems to control motor vehicles (passed)
- House Bill 1128 Amending Protections For Consumer Data Privacy (passed)
- House Bill 1314 Amending the Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (drones) to obstruct public safety operations (passed)
- House Bill 1441 Supporting 500-feet-from-school Limit For Beer Code Retailers (passed)
- Senate Bill 086 Amending Cyber Coding Cryptology For State Records (passed)
- Senate Bill 243 Opposing Retail Sales Alcohol Beverages (passed)