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Originally published Friday, July 27, 2012 at 9:08 PM

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Big gift raises Bezos' political profile

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged $2.5 million to defend Washington's gay-marriage law, likely the largest political contribution to a gay-marriage campaign in the country.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Gotta switch sides on this one. As a strait,white,male who hasn't voted for a democrat... MORE
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"We need help from straight people," she wrote. "To be very frank, we... MORE

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' $2.5 million pledge to defend Washington's gay-marriage law marks by far his biggest entry into politics and thrusts him into the national debate over the rights of same-sex couples.

The donation, which Bezos made with his wife, MacKenzie, is likely the largest political contribution to a gay-marriage campaign in the country and dwarfs all of Bezos' previous political giving.

It also positions Amazon as a sort of corporate counterpoint to Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain whose president made headlines with recent comments that America risked "God's judgment" by supporting same-sex marriage.

Bezos' donation came after a personal email appeal from Jennifer Cast, an early Amazon employee who left the company in 2001. She now works as the volunteer fundraising chairwoman for Washington United for Marriage.

Cast, 50, lives in Seattle with her partner, Liffy Franklin, 63, and their 7-year-old twin boys.

"During the past 12 years while I've worked for marriage equality, I've never asked you for a big donation," she wrote. "I figured that if you felt the desire to support marriage equality, you would do it."

But the same-sex-marriage measure on the November ballot had raised the stakes, she continued, and the gay community alone could not raise enough money to pass it.

"We need help from straight people," she wrote. "To be very frank, we need help from wealthy straight people who care about us and who want to help us win." She asked Bezos to make a donation of $100,000 to $200,000 and sent the email Sunday evening.

Bezos replied Tuesday morning: "Jen, this is right for so many reasons," it read. "We're in for $2.5 million. Jeff & MacKenzie."

That contribution is the largest donation of its kind in the nation, agreed supporters and opponents of Referendum 74, the gay-marriage measure Washington voters will decide in November.

Bezos' gift more than doubles the $2.3 million previously raised by the pro-gay-marriage campaign, which is promoting a yes vote on Referendum 74, to uphold the gay-marriage law passed by the Legislature this year.

"It's a pretty amazing gift, and it's a real game-changer in a lot of ways," said Zach Silk, the campaign manager of Washington United for Marriage.

Silk called Bezos' gift "a call to arms" for other deep-pocketed donors and said he hoped the donation would spur others to give.

Cast said she has received hundreds of emails since news of Bezos' gift broke early Friday from well-wishers and those who suddenly wanted to give. One donor pledged $25,000, she said.

The campaign previously received $100,000 donations from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Gay-marriage opponents said despite the Bezos money, they're confident voters will reject same-sex marriage in November as they have in 32 states.

"It's a significant amount of money and it certainly does give them a lot of flexibility," said Joseph Backholm, chairman of the executive committee for Preserve Marriage Washington. "We hope it will inspire people on our side of this issue to step up and do likewise."

Preserve Marriage Washington so far has raised about $250,000 but hopes to reach $4 million, Backholm said.

Before opening his wallet for the gay-marriage cause, Bezos had not been known as a major political benefactor.

His largest previous political donation was $100,000 to help defeat a 2010 initiative that would have imposed an income tax on the wealthy. Bezos also gave $100,000 in support of a charter-schools measure in 2004, and $10,000 in support of a transportation-tax package in 2002.

Other than that, he has mostly given a smattering of contributions to local politicians, including Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Bezos' gay-marriage donation is one of the largest by an individual or couple to any ballot measure in Washington history, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. In 2000, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave nearly $3.3 million to a failed charter-schools initiative.

Costco holds the record for contributions from a single donor to a ballot measure, spending $19 million on last year's successful liquor-privatization initiative.

It's not clear whether Bezos' action will draw a backlash for Amazon from religious conservatives or others opposed to same-sex marriage.

But one expert on corporate reputation said Bezos is taking that risk.

"On the one hand, I admire his courage," Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business who has studied the risks of businesses supporting controversial causes.

But from a purely business perspective, he said, Bezos' gift was as needless a risk as Chick-fil-A's stance in opposition to same-sex marriage.

"Whether you're on the Chick-fil-A side or the Bezos side, it doesn't make any sense," he said.

Gay-rights groups called for a boycott of the Atlanta-based fast-food chain after Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told an interviewer his company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family" and warning that "we are inviting God's judgment on our nation" by redefining marriage.

Amazon's support of gay rights is not new. It joined other local businesses, including Microsoft and Boeing, in endorsing the gay-marriage law when the bill was being considered by the state Legislature this year.

And the company has long offered health insurance and other benefits to employees with same-sex partners.

This story includes material from The Associated Press.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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