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The pros and cons of a North Texas Amazon headquarters
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The pros and cons of a North Texas Amazon headquarters

State Politics

Will bathroom politics push Texas aside in Amazon’s search for second home?

By Anna M. Tinsley

September 15, 2017 12:34 PM

Amazon will consider a slew of factors when choosing a place to build its second headquarters, from a qualified work force to land availability to mass transit.

While Texas ranks high in some categories, such as land availability, it is on the other end of the scale with others, such as mass transit.

But there’s also a rather large elephant looming in the room for Texas: the so-called “bathroom bill.”

“If we had passed the bill last time, Amazon would strike Texas from the list,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “They’ve made it clear they aren’t going to be supportive of a state that’s going in the direction of the bathroom bill.”

Top Republicans — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — fought for the bathroom bill, which would require people to use public restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate. Many public entities, including the city of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth school district, currently allow people to use bathrooms that match their chosen gender.

After the hot-button proposal died during the regular legislative session, Abbott brought it back to life in a special session where it again died.

Amazon, which is based in Seattle, was among the high-profile companies this year that signed on to a letter calling for Abbott to abandon the “discriminatory” bill, saying it would be “bad for our employees and bad for business.”

Chambers of commerce and law enforcement agencies voiced opposition to the legislation.

Being socially progressive is important for [Amazon]. They wouldn’t want to be in a place where a lot of their staff would be nervous.

Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School

Now, as cities and states across the country work to entice the e-commerce giant to choose them for “HQ2,” some political experts wonder what role the social and political climate of Texas, including the bathroom bill, will play in Amazon’s decision-making process.

“If Amazon is going to think about us, they will ask the state leaders if this is something that will happen,” Miller said. “If they aren’t clear that we aren’t going down that route again, they’ll look at other states. This is a huge deal to these companies.”

The good news is that when Texas businesses stepped up, showing the negative impact the bill could have on the state’s business, lawmakers didn’t end up passing the measure, said Jennifer Stevens, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Business.

“I’m sure (Amazon) will consider a lot of factors,” Stevens said. “But they got to see what happens when a business community unites.

“That’s our role — to unite whenever we need to protect our strong business climate in Texas.”

Amazon already has fullfillment centers in North Texas, including this always busy location in Haslet in northwest Tarrant County.
Rodger Mallison

Already, Amazon has fulfillment centers in Texas, including those in Fort Worth, Haslet and Coppell.

Early reports indicate the Dallas/Fort Worth region could make Amazon’s top 10 list as potential sites. The company plans for a potentially $5 billion site that could bring as many as 50,000 jobs.

Although Amazon did not list political issues as part of its request for proposals from cities, the company emphasized wanting a city where there is a young, tech-talented workforce available for the company to hire. Mass transit and easy access to a major airport will also be considered.

“Being socially progressive is important for [Amazon],” said Rita McGrath, a professor at the Columbia Business School. “They wouldn’t want to be in a place where a lot of their staff would be nervous.”

‘We avoided a major mistake’

Abbott, the state’s top cheerleader, wants the state’s economy to grow, something landing a second headquarters for Amazon would do.

But he also has supported a bathroom bill in Texas.

“Amazon and Texas have developed a great working partnership over the last decade thanks to our high-quality workforce, reasonable regulations and low taxes,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said when asked about the issue. “We will continue to aggressively court Amazon in the hopes that it expands its footprint in Texas and establishes its new headquarters here.”

During the regular session, Texas lawmakers couldn’t agree how to address the bathroom issue.

Which bathroom people can choose to use has become a political hot potatoe, and not just in Texas.
Max Faulkner Star-Telegram archives

The House passed a bill requiring public schools to provide alternate restrooms for transgender youths who prefer to use facilities that match their gender identity. The Senate bill required people using restrooms in publicly owned buildings, not just schools, to use the restroom that matches their “biological sex.”

In the special session, the proposal died when the House adjourned without taking up the issue.

House Speaker Joe Straus, an opponent of the bill, this week urged business leaders to continue their fight against the proposal if it comes up again.

“We avoided a major mistake that would’ve cost our economy greatly and divided us unnecessarily,” Straus said during a San Antonio speech. “Now is not the time to walk away from the table. Going forward, working together we can do more than just avoiding mistakes.”

I don’t think they’ll put the new headquarters in a red state.

James Shein, Northwestern University

The outspokenness of the business community on this issue has the potential to trigger a change in Republican attitudes, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

It could “shift the center of gravity (of the Republican Party) to moderate Republicans or even Democrats,” he said. “This would be tectonic shift.”

Many say that’s not likely.

What’s more likely, they say, is that Straus, R-San Antonio, could become a target to conservative Republicans in next year’s elections because of his opposition to the bill. And that could detract from his record-breaking bid for a sixth term as House speaker in 2019.

‘What’s going to happen?’

The bathroom issue blew up in May 2016 in North Texas when Fort Worth school district Superintendent Kent Scribner announced new guidelines for transgender and other students, assuring that they be allowed to use a restroom where they “must feel comfortable and safe.”

Patrick came to Fort Worth calling for Scribner’s resignation over the guidelines, saying “every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged,” Patrick said. “I call upon the parents within the Fort Worth ISD to take immediate steps to repeal this stealthy scheme and remove Dr. Scribner from his post.”

The school district later amended its guidelines, which allows schools to deal with each student’s bathroom needs on a case-by-base basis.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick came to Fort Worth in 2016, calling for Fort Worth schools supertintendent to resign over the school district’s transgender bathroom guidlines.
Joyce Marshall

Critics of the Texas legislation have long pointed to North Carolina, where officials passed a similar measure — and saw performers, businesses and sporting events pull out of the state — before lawmakers eventually repealed the law. PayPal, which had planned a $3.6 million expansion to add 400 jobs at its facility in Charlotte, N.C., never restarted those plans after the repeal.

CEOs are starting to become more involved in political social issues where their facilities are located, said James Shein, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

With Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos often donating to Democratic candidates and liberal political issues, it’s likely that Amazon may not even consider states that are more conservative politically, he said.

“I don’t think they’ll put the new headquarters in a red state,” Shein said.

But he added that if Texas cities are being considered by Amazon, a bathroom bill won’t automatically eliminate Texas from the competition.

“I think it will be discussed, but I don’t think it will kill a deal because [the bill] was defeated,” Shein said.

Many believe the issue could come up again when lawmakers head back to Austin in 2019.

That’s why the issue remains of great interest to many, Miller said.

Miller attended the home opener for the Houston Texans and spoke with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who only asked him about one political issue.

“He asked, ‘What’s going to happen on the bathroom bill?’ ” Miller said.

Staff writer Andrea Ahles contributed to this report, which contains information from our archives.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley