Amazon Hires Lobbyists for N.Y. Site and Tries to Fend Off Ocasio-Cortez

Amazon is trying to quell rising opposition to its plan for offices in New York, hiring well-connected lobbyists to make its case in the corridors of power even as it mounts a block-by-block neighborhood effort against the grass-roots network that helped push Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory.

Company executives, setting up shop in a hotel in Long Island City, Queens, where Amazon wants to build a new campus, have been walking the streets, sometimes accompanied by city officials, to listen to residents and drum up support.

The extent of their reach could be felt at City Hall on Tuesday where two newly hired lobbyists, Mark Weprin, a former Queens city councilman, and Ed Wallace, another former councilman, conferred with city officials in the soaring marble rotunda and made the case for the company. The timing was not coincidental: Amazon executives are expected to face withering questioning before the New York City Council at a public hearing on Wednesday.

The ground battle comes weeks after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, frequent antagonists who teamed up to lure Amazon, presented the deal to bring 25,000 of the company’s workers to Long Island City as a major victory. But they did not anticipate the sustained anger that would greet the news.

Critics object to the lack of a public review of the deal, the potential impact on immigrant and low-income areas of Queens that are already facing gentrification and, most of all, the incentives from the state and city that could total $3 billion — all for one of the world’s richest and ubiquitous companies.

Still, while opponents can ratchet up the rhetoric, there is little they can do to unravel the deal: It does not need approval from the City Council. Nonetheless, Amazon, along with the city and state, is making an intensive push to sell the deal.

“We are excited to work with New Yorkers over the coming months and years to bring a new Amazon headquarters to Long Island City and help support the community,” the company said in a statement.

For weeks, executives in charge of the company’s public policy have been making frequent flights to New York City from their offices in Washington, D.C. They visited the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, a short walk from the future site of the Amazon offices, and have held meetings with community groups.

This month, the company hired SKDKnickerbocker, a prominent political consulting and public relations firm that has advised several Democratic campaigns and whose roster includes influential strategists like Anita Dunn, a top White House official in the Obama administration. Devon Puglia, a former spokesman for the city comptroller, is leading the firm’s work on Amazon.

Even before the deal, Amazon had a local lobbyist, Yoswein New York, which is led by a former Assembly member.

The company’s executives suggest that the negative reaction was not out of the ordinary, and pointed to a poll this month by Quinnipiac University showing support for the deal in Queens.

But Amazon, and the incentives it will receive, are a first topic of conversation in many circles in Queens. Neighbors debate the merits of the incentives in person and over text messages. Some are afraid to bring up the subject of Amazon, even among solidly liberal friends, for fear of sparking an argument.

Gianna Cerbone, a restaurateur in Long Island City, said she saw a decline in her business after speaking positively of Amazon. “A local person told me, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have shown so much support,’” she said.

“I said, I will stand my ground like a pillar in the community,” said Ms. Cerbone, who agreed to be on an advisory board for the project organized by the city and state. “You can oppose it — why can’t I be for it?”

Young volunteers, many fresh off the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, have been knocking on doors around Long Island City and neighboring areas of Queens to generate opposition to the Amazon deal. Hundreds packed a cavernous Episcopal church in Astoria on Monday night, with scores left waiting in a line outside, to rail against the company.

“When our communities are under attack, what do we do?” one speaker called out.

“Stand up, fight back!” the room of more than 300 responded in unison.

The event was organized, in large part, by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, which helped fuel Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s improbable win in June over the longtime Democratic incumbent, Representative Joseph Crowley in a neighboring House district in Queens.

“A lot of people who volunteered for the campaign are now organizing with us against Amazon,” said Aaron Taube, a D.S.A. member and freelance writer who helped direct canvassing on behalf of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. “O.K. the election is over, how do we keep organizing?”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was among the first politicians to pan the deal, saying that a company of Amazon’s size should not “receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need more investment.”

Some New York-based activists have also been sharing notes with democratic socialist counterparts in Seattle over tactics for resisting Amazon. “There’s nothing unique about Seattle, or Amazon,” said Kshama Sawant, a Socialist city councilwoman in Seattle who has sparred with the company there. “Big business expect to get their way without making big ripples in the news. The best tactic is you build a movement in the streets.”

In Queens, some Amazon opponents are recent arrivals to the borough. Others are long-term residents fearful of being forced out of their homes amid rising rents that, they believe, Amazon will hasten.

Thomas Muccioli, 31, knocked on doors on Sunday in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood where he said his family has lived since the 1930s. “It’s kind of crazy to be trying to protect your neighborhood that you grew up in,” said Mr. Muccioli, an actor who makes the rent, he said, by working side jobs wherever he can find them.

Even some longstanding progressive organizers said they had been struck by the level of uncontrolled outrage over the deal.

“We were surprised,” said Deborah Axt of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group opposed to the deal. “This is so far above and beyond a traditional coalition effort — it’s broader, it’s crazier.”

Activists have used chalk to write slogans on the sidewalk and posted stenciled messages around Long Island City. Vandals sprayed “Scamazon” in large letters across an abandoned restaurant on the site of the company’s future home. (The city, which owns the land, had the graffiti cleaned up hours after it was discovered.)

In response, city and state officials scrambled to rally supporters. In advance of the hearing, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo issued a joint statement announcing a 45-member advisory board for the project — to show local backing and solidify the deal. Like the City Council, the advisory board will not have the power to block the deal, but those who agreed to serve on it said they hoped to shape the process.

“I’m going in with my eyes wide open — I know there are many players involved,” said Meghan Cirrito, 41, of the Gantry Parent Association, who agreed to join the board.

Other members of the board, set to meet in January for the first time, include the tenant association presidents of nearby public housing developments, business groups and local civic organizations among others.

In making a deal with Amazon, the mayor and the governor negotiated behind closed doors and created a process that prevents the City Council from having any power to amend or torpedo the agreement. City and state officials provided detailed information to the company and agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement that required them to alert Amazon every time a news reporter made a public information request about the deal.

Opponents hope to stop the deal using public pressure, and are looking to what is expected to be a critical vote by an obscure state board, the Public Authorities Control Board, which may have to approve aspects of the plan. State officials have differed on when and if the plan will face such a vote.

But before then, activists and Amazon are hoping to win over longtime residents like Rose Sullivan, 62. As she walked her dogs on Sunday night, she listened to Mr. Muccioli and two other canvassers explain their opposition.

“I have mixed feelings,” Ms. Sullivan said after the canvassers had left. She liked the idea of bringing jobs to the area, but feared the side effects.

“We’re already getting priced out,” she said. “It’s going to put another strain.”