Spear versus the speaker.
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  • Spear versus the speaker.

Jess Spear, a climate scientist and organizer who is leading the grassroots campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle, filed paperwork this afternoon to run against the most powerful lawmaker in the state legislature, House Speaker Frank Chopp.

Since he was elected 20 years ago, it's fair to say that Chopp has created a political paradox for himself: He's simultaneously influential and vulnerable. While Speaker Chopp successfully carved out a moderate path intended to win and retain a Democratic majority in Olympia, he has alienated much of his base in the state's most progressive district, who seek a unapologetic champion of liberal causes.

Spear criticizes Chopp's strategy by arguing Democrats' house majority has dwindled, and the senate was overtaken by Republicans. On key big-picture issues—such as education funding (which plummeted), social services (which were gutted), and a tax structure (which falls more on the poor than any other state)—Chopp has negotiated budget compromises that represent a decade-long trend of conservative victories. On the other hand: An unabashed progressive, she argues, can widen the narrow spectrum of political discourse, thereby nudging third-rail causes into the mainstream.

But I asked Spear this: Although Chopp may not grandstand for his liberal 43rd Legislative District, many voters value a well-connected politician who can hold back a conservative tide, so how would she appeal to them?

"I understand why people want to hold back the Republicans," says Spear, a 32-year-old socialist running with the same Socialist Alternative Party that launched Kshama Sawant's political career. "But Democrats are no way to do that. By passing regressive taxes, they push working people toward the Republican Party. They are not advancing the issues that working people care about. They are not actually showing leadership. The lesser evil isn’t getting us where we need to go on really important issues."

Spear is staking out three policy goals:

Spear wants to close corporate tax loopholes, such as hundreds of millions in tax breaks routinely given to Microsoft and the nationally record-setting $8.7 billion tax break handed out to Boeing last year. That was ostensibly an effort to keep aerospace manufacturing in the state. But, despite Chopp helping convene a special session for the Boeing tax giveaway, Spear points out, the company nonetheless continues to export local jobs.

"There are no special sessions for working people," says Spear. "Instead they are ramming through votes for big corporations. Where is our special session on transportation, homelessness, rent, or home foreclosures?"

Spear also advocates that the legislature pass a rent control law that would allow cities to temper exploding housing costs; she proposes a 1 or 2 percent cap on annual rent increases. Finally, she argues for making the state's tax structure more progressive. Although Democrats have long given lip service to reforming the tax code, Spear says, a staunch elected advocate in Olympia can re-frame the tax debate for the state much the way Sawant has done on the minimum-wage issue in Seattle.

Spear earned her masters degree in marine science at the University of South Florida, a career she pursued with "an activist perspective," she says. "I got into science because I wanted to do something about [climate change], not just because it’s interesting." She studied micro-fossil history to compare past climate change as an indicator of future climate change. Spear moved to Seattle in spring of 2011, when her husband got a job working for NOAA. But living on Capitol Hill, her rent went up repeatedly and she was recently pushed into the Eastlake neighborhood searching for lower rent. She is now an organizer of the group 15 Now.

Spear is convinced that the progressive left currently has major influence over Seattle politics, despite a recent poll that found Socialist Alternative was the least credible group polled on the issue of raising the minimum wage. (She argues it's actually a good sign that one-sixth of the city even knows their group exists.)

Spear says the prospect of mandating $15-an-hour minimum wage was ridiculed as a pipe dream a couple years ago. Since then—with waves of fast-food strikes, labor union organizing, and socialist Sawant winning a seat on the city council running on a platform of $15—the $15 minimum wage issue has become an inevitable political reality.

"I think Frank Chopp is totally beatable," she says. "He is out of touch with his district. If you look at what they said about Kshama Sawant, they said it was impossible. They said $15 was impossible. But they were wrong twice. The political situation has changed. People want an alternative to politics as usual, and we can bring him down."