Democrats Have a Supermajority in Olympia. Progressive Legislation Is Being Killed. Who's Blocking the Democratic Agenda? Seattle's Frank Chopp, Speaker of the House.
There's a troubling detail for Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp in the results of March's big viaduct vote. Voters in Chopp's 43rd District—Capitol Hill, Wallingford, Madison Park, and the University District—overwhelmingly (73 percent) rejected an elevated rebuild.
Chopp was a loud advocate for the elevated rebuild. "An aboveground solution is the only viable option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct," Chopp wrote in a November 16 letter to the governor.
On the morning after the vote, when all the former foes—tunnel advocate Mayor Greg Nickels, elevated supporter Governor Christine Gregoire, and surface/transit supporter King County Executive Ron Sims—gathered at a "Kumbaya" press conference in Gregoire's office, Chopp, one of the main characters during the preceding months' drama, was absent.
Along with the majority of voters in Chopp's district, who detest the elevated (23,323 against, 8,278 in favor), it's also worth noting that environmentalists, a key bloc in Chopp's Democratic base, were against it as well. Groups such as the Sierra Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Washington Conservation Voters stumped against the rebuild in advance of the March vote.
"Frank Chopp never came close to acknowledging the environmental reality," says Kevin Fullerton, chair of the Political Committee of the Seattle Sierra Club. "Instead, what he did was take this typical centrist position, which says, 'We'll build auto capacity first and then whatever else, transit, comes second.'"
Some legislators in Olympia were coming around to the Sierra Club's view, says Fullerton. But "the fact that [Chopp] was so adamant prevented more-reasonable members from coming over. No one was going to say anything with Frank posturing the way he was."
• • •
The viaduct isn't the only issue where state Democrats let progressives down in 2007. Despite their 62–36 supermajority in the state house and 32–17 supermajority in the state senate, the list of disappointments is lengthy. The Democratic leadership has tabled or thwarted a number of no-brainer legislative items: a cap on payday-loan interest rates, a bill closing the gun-show loophole, a bill to keep tabs on corporate tax breaks by including those de facto expenditures in the budget, legislation preventing employers from holding "captive audience" anti-unionizing meetings, regulations requiring disclosure from pharmaceutical-industry lobbyists, an overall cap on CO2 emissions, tenant relocation assistance and a cap on condo conversions, legislation preventing strip-mining operations on Maury Island, protecting student free-speech rights, a homebuyers' protection bill, full funding for health-care workers in nursing homes, and a cool follow-up to the infamous $3.2 billion tax break Boeing got in 2003, making the money contingent on a requirement that the company doesn't engage in union busting.
• • •
This news is frustrating for progressive Democratic voters who assume that having a liberal house Speaker like Seattle's Frank Chopp would have ensured a monumental session in 2007.
First elected to the state house from Seattle's 43rd District in 1994, Chopp, who likes to refer to himself as a "Bremerton Democrat"—meaning a beer-drinking, blue-collar, populist 26th District Democrat, as opposed to an effete, latte-sipping, pot-smoking 43rd District Democrat—has a bold record as a progressive legislator and Speaker. He's passed the estate tax, collective bargaining for state employees, a housing trust fund, the highest minimum wage in the country, and opportunity grants for college tuition, and quadrupled farm-worker-housing funding, among other achievements.
Chopp, 53 (and actually born and raised in Bremerton), was also the longtime executive director of the Fremont Public Association (now known as Solid Ground), a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to the poor.
But progressives aren't upset merely because leadership iced wise items like environmental protections on Maury Island and payday-loan guidelines to protect low-income borrowers. (The state legislature in Georgia outlawed payday loans in 2004.) People are also disappointed by some of the things state Democrats pursued this session, things such as corporate tax breaks and resuscitating a Tim Eyman initiative that the courts had thrown out.
"I was really surprised to hear the Democratic leadership was even talking about codifying Tim Eyman's tax cap," says Christy Margelli, communications director of the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition, a liberal group that's been lobbying this session for a more progressive tax code. A Democratic bill to codify Eyman's tax plan died in committee, but the Democratic leadership revived it in caucus. "It seems like an odd place for a strong Democratic majority to be—busy talking about moving Tim Eyman's agenda," Margelli says. "The thinking behind that is defensive. When you have a big majority you should have an offensive posture."
Progressive critics of the leadership are also hung up on an unfulfilled promise from the Democrats: the promise to ratchet down the more than 400 corporate tax breaks handed out by the state. "In the fifth or sixth year of Democratic control now," says David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 775, "neither chamber has looked seriously at tax loopholes. We're subsidizing the Realtors and the chemical fertilizer industry, for example, with millions."
Indeed, a bill pushed by the liberal Tax Fairness Coalition that would have tracked these corporate tax breaks had 17 co-sponsors, including lead sponsor Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37, South Seattle). Santos' bill was passed out of the Finance Committee to the Rules Committee, but leadership yanked it from Rules and sent it back to Finance, where it's now wasting away.
When I interviewed Chopp at the beginning of the session, at his de facto office, the Wallingford Tully's on 45th Street, I asked him about the corporate-welfare issue. Chopp said: "We passed a bill creating a committee to do performance audits of tax breaks and tax loopholes [the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC)]. So, we're going to look at them, and if the break doesn't work, it should be repealed."
However, at the behest of Chopp, there was an attempt to do an end run around the performance audit. JLARC came back with its first recommendation this session: end a $1.1 million annual tax deduction for the beef industry. Accordingly, the House Finance Committee was set to table a bill that would have extended the tax break. However, in a procedure known as "relieving the committee of further consideration"—a move initiated by house leadership—the bill was leapfrogged into the Rules Committee midsession, a ham-handed attempt to revive the tax break, a deal that "Frank brokered," according to one house Democrat.
"One legislator [Representative Bill Grant from Walla Walla] asked me to keep it alive and I did," Chopp acknowledges. Obviously, the votes weren't there, and now Chopp actually takes credit for killing it.
This arcane parliamentarian anecdote about leadership raises an important question: Why was a corporate tax break—one that got the ixnay from the very review committee Chopp had boasted about—getting special treatment from leadership?
The answer speaks directly to Chopp's philosophy. There's a slogan on house Democratic caucus letterhead and up on the wall in the house Democratic caucus room: "One Washington." The idea is to create an agenda that appeals to the whole state, so that the Democrats don't alienate mainstream voters. (Although, with 63 percent of the house, you'd think house Democrats would understand they are the mainstream.) Chopp, who looks a little like Dick Cheney, explained his philosophy to me this week: "The Republicans try to bring division between voters with wedge issues between urban and rural voters, between the environment and business. Well, we've had enough of that. We want to bring people together and balance different perspectives."
This broad-based emphasis certainly makes Eastern Washington Democrats like Representative Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) happy. Representative Ormsby told me Chopp was "masterful at identifying every member's needs, to protect our majority." In addition to the beef-industry subsidy ploy, that may explain why house bills from Democratic leadership exempting farmers from the business and occupation tax and another allowing a utility-tax exemption for agribusiness sailed through the house in early March.
In my discussion with Chopp at Tully's about reining in corporate tax breaks, Chopp stood up for tax breaks in Eastern Washington. "Do you want agriculture to go under in this state? I don't. Hell no. It's too important for our state. [Ending business tax breaks] isn't as clear cut as you think."
Perhaps. But let's get serious about "One Washington." Only 4 of the 62 Democrats in the state house are from Eastern Washington. And three of those members, including Ormsby, are from urban districts; they represent Spokane. Only Walla Walla's Representative Bill Grant (D-16) is from rural Eastern Washington. It was Grant, Chopp's caucus chairman, who sponsored the bill to extend the questionable $1.1 million beef-industry tax break, and the agribusiness and farmer's loopholes that passed.
Chopp's obsession with "One Washington" really seems like an obsession with one legislator. "Representative Grant has a beef manufacturer in his district," Chopp says.
• • •
It's not just Democratic activists among the base like the Sierra Club's Fullerton, lefty tax reformer Margelli, or union leader Rolf who are going public with criticisms of Chopp. Last week, two Democratic legislators—one from Olympia and one from the Seattle suburbs—made their dissatisfaction public.
As the Olympian first reported in early April, liberal Representative Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia) threatened to resign after Chopp tabled a consumer-protection bill for homeowners that Williams had moved through the House Judiciary Committee.
And then the original sponsor of the bill, Democratic State Senator Brian Weinstein (D-41, Mercer Island), who passed the bill out of the Democratic senate 30–19, told The Stranger that Chopp was acting like a dictator.
"This is democracy at its worst," Weinstein told me in an interview. "Here is one guy who overruled 30 Democratic senators and the Democratic House Judiciary Committee. There's no point in doing the fact finding, holding eight hours of hearings, of doing the right thing, if a dictator can just pull the rug out from under you."
The bill, which mandated homebuyer warranties, unnerved the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW). Weinstein went as far as to say Chopp killed the bill because he was sucking up to the BIAW. Chopp, Weinstein says, wants the BIAW on his side come election time to protect the Democratic majority.
"And," Weinstein adds derisively, "not do anything with it." (Chopp says the BIAW had nothing to do with his decision. The bill wasn't ready for prime time, he says.)
It almost makes you nostalgic for the days when the GOP was the bad guy. House Democrats threatening to resign because of Democratic Speaker Chopp's leadership? Senate Democrats saying the Democratic house Speaker is acting like a dictator? Democratic accusations that the Democratic house Speaker—hailing from the most liberal district in the state—sucking up to big-business lobbyists?
That's hard to prove. But from the payday loans to Maury Island to homeowner protection to letting Boeing off the hook when it comes to union busting, it sure seems like Chopp is taking his cues from big donors rather than Democrats. Dennis Bassford, executive vice president of MoneyTree, Inc., a major payday-loan company, is one of Chopp's top donors, personally kicking in $700 in 2006 and $1,350 in 2004. Bassford's sister-in-law, Sara Bassford, a cofounder of MoneyTree, gave $650 to Chopp in 2004. Similarly, Boeing donated $1,400 this session and Glacier Northwest, the company that wants to expand its strip-mining on Maury Island, has donated $1,100 to Chopp over the past two sessions. A check of recent reports filed by BIAW lobbyist Tom McCabe shows that Chopp is cozy with the BIAW: One of just two wining-and-dining expenses on McCabe's entire February lobbying report was a $124 steak dinner at Ricardo's outside Olympia with Chopp. Additionally, building-industry contributions to Chopp add up to at least $10,000 in the last two election cycles, including $1,400 from Vulcan in 2006 and $675 from Nucor Steel in 2004.
Frustration with Chopp is nothing new. During the 2006 legislative session, Chopp caved to business interests and tabled a bill that would have forced large employers that were skimping on health care for employees—putting those employees on state assistance—to pay into a state health-care fund. It was called the "Wal-Mart" bill. Washington State Labor Council leader Robbie Stern pins the blame on Chopp: "[He] put his foot on the Fair Share health-care bill despite the fact that the votes were there," Stern says.
At the beginning of this session, Chopp made it clear to his caucus that it should expect more of the same. Late last year, after their big election wins—Democrats picked up seven seats in the state house and six in the state senate—the incoming supermajority was warned not to overreach. Two weeks after the landslide, Democratic house leadership held a three-hour meeting on November 19 at the Sea-Tac Doubletree Hotel. The mood was celebratory—until the party leadership addressed the room.
"We were toasted on our big majority," says one Democratic state house representative, "and then told not to use it." The leadership urged the members to be "cautious," "restrained," "prudent," and "to work with the Republicans." Chopp and Majority Leader Lynn Kessler (D-24, Jefferson and Clallam Counties) told the room that they should work with the GOP, and that there would be "no new taxes."
Chopp was true to his word. One of his first moves after the Doubletree meeting was to take the Finance Committee chairmanship away from progressive tax reformer Representative Jim McIntire (D-46, North Seattle), a dogged advocate of the longstanding progressive demand for an income tax. "It was pretty clear that Frank did not like the fact that I was out there talking about income taxes," McIntire says.
• • •
Not every Democrat in the house is unhappy. Representative Dave Upthegrove (D-33)—a gay, liberal legislator from SeaTac—applauds Chopp's leadership. "Chopp is very conscious of what he calls sustainable policies. It's not just about bringing the 43rd District with us. We need to bring the whole state with us. It's frustrating sometimes, but we're moving in the right direction." Chopp's support for rural interests resulted in Walla Walla's Representative Grant cosponsoring last year's gay-rights legislation, says Upthegrove.
All the caucus members I talked to—and even labor leaders like Stern who had hotly disagreed with Chopp on the "Wal-Mart" bill—praised Chopp for his ability to navigate the large Democratic caucus and build consensus to get work done.
"He's an extremely effective Speaker," Stern now says. "He's built a lot of loyalty in that caucus, and he can build consensus."
"He runs into the problem of competing interests," says Representative Maralyn Chase (D-32), who had a number of progressive bills, like her CO2 cap, ignored by leadership. "But he generally plays the role of King Solomon pretty well."
Chopp and the Democrats have done some heavy lifting this session. The biggest victory—one for which Chopp rightly gets most of the credit—is the children's health-care bill which requires the Department of Social and Health Services to provide health-insurance coverage for children in families with household incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
Other progressive victories include passing the accurate sex-ed bill, funding all-day kindergarten, millions for school construction, and a consumer protection bill for insurance claims. Meanwhile, a longtime Democratic priority to lower the threshold for local school levies to a simple majority and a bill that forces employers to reimburse the state if its employees are on the state's Medicaid or Basic Health plan passed in Chopp's state house and were pending in the state senate at press time.
Legislators also passed a domestic-partnerships bill this year, and our state's gay legislators say Chopp was "rock solid" on it.
Chopp has also been rock solid against the proposed $500 million Sonics subsidy, denouncing it as a misguided use of public money. And on that issue, as opposed to the elevated rebuild, he's with 74 percent of Seattle voters.
• • •
"If you have any question about his commitment to social justice," says Representative Chase, who recalls first meeting Chopp, a UW grad, in the mid 1970s when he was organizing a campaign in Bremerton to revoke the licenses of social clubs that didn't admit blacks, "just go down and stand in the lobby of the Fremont Public Association and see all the work they do, the food banks. His social-justice roots are deep. But he brings that down here and he runs into a problem of balancing competing interests among members."
And Chase could add: balancing his own competing interests. The group that led the fight for capping interest rates on payday loans (the bill that stalled in the Democratic house this year) is a spin-off of Solid Ground, the Statewide Poverty Action Network (SPAN). Aiko Schaefer, director of SPAN, credits Chopp for helping start her group and won't blame him for killing the bill. "The committee chair [Representative Steve Kirby from Tacoma], not the Speaker, stonewalled the movement in the house," Schaefer says. "We've definitely talked to the Speaker about coming back next year." (We'll see if MoneyTree, Inc. comes back with more donations for the Speaker next year as well.)
Midsession, Chopp told me he wanted the payday-loan industry to have reasonable rates (they legally reach a nearly 400 percent annualized average in this state). But he said, "The caucus was still working something out." Obviously, nothing ever got worked out. Still building consensus, I imagine. "There is significant opposition in the house and senate," Chopp says. "In the house I could work it, but obviously I haven't figured out a way to pass it."
One has to wonder why Chopp didn't use his power as Speaker—"to relieve the committee of consideration"—and move the payday bill to the floor. "I'll try to resurrect it next session," Chopp says.
Judging political risk is the Speaker's job. The question is, At what point do you stop avoiding risks to protect your massive majority and actually start using your massive majority? When I asked Rep. Mike Sells (D-38, Everett), the sponsor of the organizing rights bill, why, despite having so many sponsors, the bill got killed, he said, "It will be back next year." Perhaps labor Democrat Sells is hoping that next year the Democratic supermajority will start legislating like one.