In this May 22 photo, a floor of scaffolding remains below the upper portion of the Space Needle as construction cranes rise above downtown behind in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

In this May 22 photo, a floor of scaffolding remains below the upper portion of the Space Needle as construction cranes rise above downtown behind in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Seattle likes Bill Gates, but Jeff Bezos — not so much

Observers say Gates benefits from being a local and the world’s leading philanthropist.

By Sally Ho / Associated Press

SEATTLE — The Seattle region is home to America’s two richest men, but their local legacies to date represent two very different eras for the city.

While Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is blamed by some for rising rents and clogged city streets, Bill Gates is largely admired for helping lead the computing revolution and donating billions through his philanthropy.

The Microsoft co-founder’s legacy here includes opening the world’s largest private charity across the street from the Space Needle, creating housing for homeless families and supporting charter schools.

Microsoft was the first tech company to dramatically change the region’s economy as it grew quickly in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Seattle is booming again with housing prices skyrocketing thanks to online retail giant Amazon’s explosive growth that has added tens of thousands of well-paid workers to the area.

Amazone founder, president and CEO Jeff Bezos arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala benefit, celebrating Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, on May 7, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

Amazone founder, president and CEO Jeff Bezos arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala benefit, celebrating Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, on May 7, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)

Bezos has been a flashpoint in the tension that has come with success. The City Council recently passed — then quickly rescinded — a tax on large employers to combat homelessness, which Amazon opposed and successfully worked to strike down. A city councilwoman organized protests in front of Amazon buildings featuring people carrying “Tax Bezos” signs.

Meanwhile, Gates has largely escaped the criticism directed at Bezos and other tech leaders as Seattle loudly debates how to respond to the advantages and downsides of being the United States’ fastest-growing big city.

Observers say Gates benefits from being a local and the world’s leading philanthropist.

In this April 16 photo, Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the media after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this April 16 photo, Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the media after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Margaret O’Mara, a historian and University of Washington professor, said Gates came from a prominent Seattle family, arising in the public eye at a time when there was less anxiety about online privacy.

“It’s a really, really different public persona,” O’Mara said. “He recognized the importance of this responsibility, this broader civic responsibility, that he had great power to be incredibly influential, to deploy his intellect and persuasive powers for good.”

Early on, there was some criticism that Gates and his company could be better corporate citizens as Microsoft blossomed. But thanks to the billions he now gives away each year, Gates has managed to shed his reputation as a laser-focused, sharp-elbowed tech billionaire, though his controversial philanthropic work focused on changing America’s school systems hasn’t gone unnoticed at home.

Microsoft has been headquartered in Seattle’s once-sleepy eastern suburbs since 1979. The company is seen as the game-changer that allowed the region to shed its infamous “Boeing Bust” 1970s-era recession when the aircraft manufacturer laid of tens of thousands of workers during an economic slump.

Amazon is far more visible near downtown since starting as an online book-seller in 1994. It emerged as one of the success stories from the 1990s dot-com boom and is now the city’s largest private employer with more than 45,000 workers. Bezos, who grew up in Houston, moved to Seattle to launch his startup in part because of Washington state’s favorable tax structure.

Amazon declined to comment on Bezos’ behalf.

Bezos — who in the past year surpassed Gates as the world’s richest person — recently hinted he too would take on philanthropy in a big way. He said on Twitter that he would announce his plans later this year. Locally, Bezos has been on the board of the Bezos Family Foundation that is run by his parents, which focuses on education nationally.

In January, Bezos also personally gave $33 million in college scholarships for young immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. He hasn’t signed The Giving Pledge, an initiative launched by Gates encouraging billionaires to commit to giving away most of their wealth.

Where Bezos has been criticized for not being present enough, Gates’ nonprofit since 2000 has dedicated resources to helping local community issues. Food banks and domestic violence victims’ assistance are among the modestly funded and lesser-known work of the powerful, globally focused Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is also credited with delivering a Washington state charter school law through campaign contributions and his foundation’s support of the movement.

David Bley, who leads the foundations’ Pacific Northwest unit, said his team is the only one that functions in a more typical family foundation fashion by giving to local causes.

Officially, just 1.5 percent — or almost $70 million — of the $4.6 billion the foundation gave away in 2016 benefited the needy in the Puget Sound region and Washington state, according to the foundation’s annual report.

The Gates Foundation estimates it contributed $1.5 billion into the Seattle economy in 2015. It reports supporting 9,100 local jobs, including 1,200 people at the foundation itself and many more at Seattle-based organizations doing global work. For example, it gave about $270 million to six local organizations in one four-year span as part of its goal to eradicate malaria worldwide, which in turn fuels Seattle’s biotech and health research sector.

Still, Gates is not without local critics. One thing the hometown hero can’t escape is his national reputation as the leading funder of U.S. education reform. Some of the controversial ideas he’s prioritized have floundered in the state over the years.

Washington state defied federal authority when it refused in 2014 to use test scores in teacher evaluations. The concept of tying teacher performance to student test scores was part of a signature Gates initiative but was vehemently opposed by teacher unions.

Gates also gave millions to pass a state charter school law after it failed three times at the ballot. He’s had a hand in supporting each of the state’s 12 privately run, publicly funded schools even though the law is still being challenged in the courts after its narrow 2012 approval.

“Teaching in the shadow of Bill Gates is, I think, a very ominous experience because we know that his foundation is organized around the principal of privatizing our schools, of getting rid of the very institutions that we’re working in,” said Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and Gates critic.

Teachers have also protested at the foundation’s Seattle headquarters over his national schools agenda. The Gates Foundation has said it has an “up-and-down” relationship with Seattle Public Schools. The district wouldn’t comment on the matter.

The foundation said it’s unapologetic about the urgency it feels is needed to transform school systems that consistently leave behind poor and minority kids.

“We’re a funder. We’re not government. They have way more money. They have authority,” Bley said. “We only have influence and catalytic amounts of money to help people try out new things.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Dan Bates / The Herald
When Seattle Genetics founder, Clay Siegall lost his father while in college, he switched from studying for an MD to studying for a PhD., and a goal to treat cancer patients.  His efforts are paying off in lives.
Bothell biotech CEO resigns after domestic-violence allegation

Clay Siegall co-founded Seagen, which develops therapies for cancer patients. He’s accused of attacking his wife.

FILE - A sign at a Starbucks location in Havertown, Pa., is seen April 26, 2022. Starbucks says it will pay travel expenses for U.S. employees to access abortion or gender-confirmation procedures if those services aren't available within 100 miles of a worker’s home. The Seattle coffee chain says, Monday, May 16, 2022, the benefit will also be available to dependents of employees enrolled in its health care coverage. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)
Starbucks will cover travel for workers seeking abortions

Amazon and Tesla also will provide the benefit. Walmart and Facebook have stayed silent.

A barista pours steamed milk into a red paper cup while making an espresso drink at a Starbucks coffee shop in the Pike Place Market, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Seattle. It's as red as Santa's suit, a poinsettia blossom or a loud Christmas sweater. Yet Starbucks' minimalist new holiday coffee cup has set off complaints that the chain is making war on Christmas. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Interfaith group asks Starbucks to drop vegan milk surcharge

They say the practice amounts to a tax on people who have embraced plant-based lifestyles.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks

Flight cancellations since April will continue. The chaos has been damaging for Seattle’s hometown airline.

FILE - An airplane flies past the Boeing logo on the company's headquarters in Chicago, on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2001. Boeing Co., a leading defense contractor and one of the world's two dominant manufacturers of airline planes, is expected to move its headquarters from Chicago to the Washington, D.C., area, according to two people familiar with the matter. The decision could be announced as soon as later Thursday, May 5, 2022, according to one of the people. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Boeing expected to move headquarters from Chicago to DC area

The move would put Boeing executives close to their key customer, the Pentagon, and the FAA.

This 3D rendering shows Sila's 6000-foot facility in Moses Lake, to be used to manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials. (Business Wire)
New factory in Moses Lake will bring hundreds of new jobs

The plant will manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials for cars and cellphones.

Dr. David Kirtley at the new Helion headquarters, Antares, in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Helion Energy: New Everett company has the sun in its eyes

The firm is the winner of a new award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County, called Opportunity Lives Here.

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is this year's winner of the Henry M. Jackson Award given by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. Photographed in Marysville, Washington on April 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jon Nehring: Longtime Marysville mayor who’s nurtured growth

He’s helped steer the city’s transformation and is winner of the Jackson Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Monti Ackerman, recipient of the John Fluke Award, is pictured Thursday, April 28, 2022, outside his office in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Monti Ackerman: A passionate volunteer and calculator whiz

The Fortive executive is the winner of this year’s Fluke Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-38, is the recipient of this year's Henry M. Jackson award. The award recognizes a visionary leader who through partnership, tenacity and a strong commitment to community has created lasting opportunities to improve quality of life and positively impact the regional economy. Photographed in Everett, Washington on April 29, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Rep. Mike Sells: He fought for WSU Everett and worker rights

The retiring legislator is the recipient of the Floyd Award from Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

People sit outside the recently opened Amazon Go facility Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Cashier-less Amazon Go buzzing in Mill Creek grand opening

Locals came to check out the high-tech store, with $3 avocado toast and cameras watching customers’ every move.

Joel Bervell (Courtesy photo)
TikTok med student @joelbervell named top Emerging Leader

Joel Bervell, who highlights disparities in medicine, took top honors at an event for 12 rising stars in Snohomish County.