“Usually what reporters do is they quote people who didn’t like what I did or who lost a battle with me and they’re ticked, so they spout off. So if you have any questions about anything anybody said in the past, by all means.” He says this as if he just thought about it on the walk here.
I’ve been sitting with the speaker of Washington’s House of Representatives at a downtown Starbucks for about three seconds when he makes this unsolicited offer. I’ve barely had time to start my tape recorder. Chopp may be one of the most feared and powerful people in the state, but he’s not very imposing in person—medium build, a little shy of six feet tall, salt-and-pepper hair and mustache that have gone mostly to salt. At 55 years old, he looks a little like a union leader in a white oxford shirt. “I have this reputation as sort of being quiet. So consequently, I don’t get quoted about things that have gotten done. And so people get a one-sided view of people saying a few nasty things about me.” He pauses. “But it’s a minor thing. I’m not worried about it.”
He also has a reputation for ruling the House with an iron fist, and given the beatings that the press and local politicos have dealt him throughout his 10 years as speaker, Chopp’s out-of-the-gate defensiveness may be understandable. He’s been called a dictator, a control freak, and a micromanager. He’s been accused of screwing local communities, twisting arms until they snap, and selling out his party to special interests. And that’s just what some of his fellow Democrats say.
Without taking a breath he offers to give me a list of the Democrats’ accomplishments in recent years—as if he knew that some of the more liberal members of the party I’d spoken to had accused him of not being progressive enough. “Don’t let me forget. I’ve got it in the car, which I can get for you.” Afterward he has to rush to a meeting, but he doesn’t forget—he stops by the Seattle Metropolitan office later to drop it off.
“The longer a person is speaker, the more enemies they build, not more friends,” says Dean Foster, who served as chief clerk of the House under six speakers, including Chopp in 1999. And no one has ever been speaker as long as Chopp, if you count the three years when the Republicans and Democrats split the House evenly and he shared the speakership with Rep. Clyde Ballard. “It sometimes catches up with people, and it sometimes doesn’t.”
The question is, Will it catch up with Chopp now? When the legislature convenes on January 12, the House Democratic caucus will have one of its largest majorities since 1994—a majority many credit Chopp with amassing. But while that may seem a testament to his knack for building consensus, some liberals in the party wonder whether he’s had to bring too many moderate Democrats from rural and suburban districts into the fold to do it. With a weak economy and budget shortfall looming, Rep. Brendan Williams, a progressive from Olympia, says Chopp’s unwillingness to “find new revenue” (even Williams can’t bring himself to say “raise taxes”) is setting the stage for a “battle over the soul of the Democratic Party and what it means, at the end of the day, to be in the majority.”
The funny thing is, Frank Chopp didn’t want to be speaker.
In 1998, when Republicans still ruled the House, the Democratic caucus was divided over its choice for minority leader. Conservative members backed Lynn Kessler, then a third-term representative from the faded timber town of Hoquiam. Liberals backed Eileen Cody of West Seattle, who says now she only wanted the job to keep the caucus from skewing too far right under Kessler. And Chopp? Despite pleas from members who saw him as a leader who could work with both factions, he declined to run so he could care for his ailing parents—and backed Kessler.
The decision was an ironic turn in Chopp’s rise to power: He’d refused to take on a larger public role for the sake of the very people who had taught him the value of public service. Chopp’s parents were New Deal Democrats from blue-collar Bremerton—his father, Frank Sr., was a career electrician at the naval shipyard—and they would sit around the kitchen table with their two sons and two daughters debating social justice issues. “We had no dining room, by the way, so it was just a kitchen table,” Chopp explains. Frank Sr. and his wife Anne were both PTA members, and they talked so much about “giving back to the community and being involved in community efforts,” recalls Chopp, that a life in public service was almost a foregone conclusion for him. He even met his wife and the mother of his two children, Nancy Long, now the executive director of a local nonprofit group, at a public hearing.
Chopp himself became the executive director of a nonprofit, the Fremont Public Association, in 1983, and over the next 17 years established a reputation for pulling disparate groups together to develop low-income housing. Sharon Lee, who worked with Chopp at the FPA from 1987 to 1994, remembers his successful efforts to convert the Aloha Inn motel on Aurora Avenue to a homeless shelter: “I like the fact that he is a visionary and is able to build coalitions and unite people for common interests.”
So given his track record in social services—and despite the fact that he had yet to pass a bill since joining the Legislature four years earlier—most House Democrats saw Chopp as the natural choice to lead them in 1998. But when he threw his support behind the conservative Kessler, the more liberal members had a “hissy fit,” says Cody, and the party’s two factions started suiting up for a political steel-cage death match. “Whichever one of us actually won, it wasn’t going to be a cohesive caucus.”
Both sides came calling again, and finally, after several days of weighing what was best for his family against what was best for the caucus and state (“Frankie, do it!” his father urged), Chopp relented. “Frank called me up and said, ‘You’ll step down if I decide to run?’ ” Cody says. “I said, ‘Damn straight. You can have it, honey.’ ”
But that still left Kessler. She’d campaigned hard within the caucus for the position (“She just called me and called me about the vote,” says retired Rep. Pat Lantz), and she had the support of most conservative rural and small-town members. So instead of letting the drama continue to divide the party, Chopp met with her and negotiated a compromise. “Since the urban legislators, for some reason, didn’t trust that I would make good decisions for their community,” Kessler says, “Frank and I agreed that probably the best thing would be to put him as our minority leader.” She accepted the number-two spot, minority floor leader.
Frank Chopp wants to get ahead of this story.
No one had any idea what effect that behind-the-scenes deal would have in the long term. Chopp ascended to cospeaker that fall, when the Democrats won eight seats and tied for control of the House. He gave only one caveat to the caucus members who’d begged him to lead them: “If you want me, I’m going to be a little different than other speakers you’ve had.’ ” And he has been. Former chief clerk Foster calls Chopp the best he’s ever seen at “making the legislative process work for the kinds of things he believes in.” Unlike previous speakers who’d just wanted to politick for the sake of politicking, Chopp arrived with an agenda, bent on fighting for the little guy. “Now, just running the politics of the Legislature isn’t necessarily a bad deal, especially if you’ve got a real close majority,” says Foster. “But [Chopp] always has an end to how he wants to use his political power. He knows where he’s going and where he wants to be, on the policy side, not the political side. He uses the political side to get there.”
Several of Chopp’s colleagues agree. And all those House members who have lost battles with him and who like to “spout off” in the press? Most were nowhere to be found—or at least refused to comment. Even Helen Sommers, a recently retired 18-term representative who often sparred with Chopp, called the stories of their disagreements “overblown, overdone.” Instead, veterans like Kessler and Lantz as well as Larry Seaquist, a relative newcomer to the House, salute his ability to see both the big policy picture and the political chessboard. “He is a very serious man who has a broad, comprehensive, strategic sense of the issues in our society and a determination to work on them,” says Seaquist, who served 32 years in the Navy before moving to Gig Harbor and running for the House at Chopp’s urging. “I’ve run big organizations and been around presidents and prime ministers all around the world, and I could see that this was a first-rate leader.”
Few question Chopp’s intentions or sincerity. “I think that Frank truly wants to help poor people in the area of housing,” says Brian Weinstein, a former Democratic senator from Mercer Island. “He’s a true believer, and I commend him for that.” But some wonder whether his tenure has started to cloud his judgment. “I’ve never attributed a bad heart to him,” says one former representative who declined to be identified. “But I think he’s a little out of control, and one reason he’s out of control is because there are no checks on him.”
When I ask Chopp to explain what he meant when he told his colleagues he wouldn’t be like other speakers, he looks down for several seconds before answering. “I don’t just look at it as a legislative public official will. I see it as a much broader role, to see what we need to do for our society.”
Another way to put that might be to say that he believes in doing the Right Thing—or what he thinks is the Right Thing. It’s a phrase that comes up a lot, in conversations with House Democrats and with him. “That’s one of his favorite sayings,” says Lantz, who served with Chopp for 12 years. “He will say, ‘This is what we’re going to do because it’s the right thing to do.’ It’s a mantra.”
Sometimes Chopp’s fellow representatives agree with the Right Thing, as when he pushed to extend health care to 700,000 kids, or when he supported the state’s Educational Opportunity Grant program to make it a little easier for financially strapped students to find money for college. Other times, not so much. In 2001 he flat-out refused to let the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge be built and operated by the private construction giants Bechtel and Kiewit Pacific. While most, like then–Transportation Committee chair Ruth Fisher, favored private financing because of the strain the project would place on the state’s bonding capacity, Chopp was convinced it would ultimately cost users more in the end if the company owned the bridge and continued charging tolls. He overrode Fisher to kill the privatized deal, she famously called him “a dictator” in the press, and their relationship remained strained until she retired in 2002.
“In the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, where I took the stand, only one other legislator, maybe two, supported my position,” Chopp says. “And I said, ‘Well, we need a new bridge. But we’re going to do it the right way.’ Everybody was against me—everybody—including the people that are still quoted, years later, as calling me a dictator. I don’t care if I was called that. Do you know how much I saved the taxpayers?”
“A billion dollars,” he says, raising his voice and grabbing me by the arm. He’s so suddenly agitated that a guy who’s been half-dozing across from us in the Starbucks arches an eyebrow. “Okay? Yeah. Over 25 years, because the other thing about it is that not only do the private companies get hold of the corridor, they charge rent, and then they skim money off the top, and they extend the time period. So after you pay for the damn bridge, you’re still paying for it. Unbelievable. So I said no. But literally, I was the only one. So one of them called me a dictator. Fine. Call me a dictator. I stood up for the public interest, and I won. There’s nothing more progressive than that.”
Frank Chopp puts about 15,000 miles on his car every year between April and October, when the Legislature is out of session, visiting representatives in their districts, dropping in on constituents, and, most important, trawling city council meetings for future House representatives. Recruiting, he says, is a top priority. He keeps charts and graphs on every district, future potential candidates, issues that are important to them, issues that are important to the districts they’ll run in—and he recalls all of it at will. When I ask how he remembers it all and warn that I won’t believe him if he says he just memorizes it, he credits his staff for amassing the data. And then he says he just memorizes it. “I’m sorry, but I do. People used to say I have a photographic memory.”
When Chopp entered the House in 1995, the Democratic caucus was the smallest it had been since 1947. Three months earlier, in the ’94 election, the Democrats had watched Republicans take 31 of their seats. Today, some legislators think Chopp still smarts from that thumping, that he’s become single-mindedly focused on taking seats and making sure the party holds its majority. “Politicians tend to fight the last battle, the battle that influenced them,” says the former representative who declined to be identified. “I think that has left [Chopp] frozen in place.”
The Democrats have taken back nearly all of those seats since then, many in historically Republican districts. “I keep saying we don’t really need any more members,” Cody says. “We’ve got enough.” Despite being a huge supporter of Chopp’s approach to uniting conservative and liberal Democrats in the caucus, even Kessler, now House majority leader (and “the yin to Frank’s yang,” as Lantz puts it), teases Chopp that the caucus is getting too large. “I’ll tell you,” she says, “we were at our best when we were at the low 50s.”
Chopp claims he was unfazed by the conservative swing in ’95 (“I was just excited that I got elected”) and that he isn’t as obsessed with building a Democratic army as some think: “I just want good people in the Legislature.” Whatever his motive, he’s got a convincing sales pitch on the benefits of public service, whether or not potential candidates were interested in running when he found them. After nearly 30 years as a police officer and police chief in Bellevue and Bothell, Mark Ericks was ready to take it easy and spend some time with his family in 2003. Then, just as he got used to not working 16-hour days, a Democratic representative from his district announced her retirement and suggested he run for her vacant seat. He declined, only to receive a visit from Chopp, who, Ericks recalls, urged him “to consider running, based on the fact that I’d been in public work for so long and because I’d been so involved in my community.” He ran as a Democrat and won in 2004.
Chopp says a good candidate is one who “has a lot of talent and has a record of service to the community and can work with people throughout their district to represent them the right way.” He found those qualities last year in Carol Moser, whom he recruited to run for a Tri-Cities seat vacated by a seven-term Republican. “She’s a wonderful person,” says Chopp. “She had served on the local city council, had been on the state Transportation Commission, and was very active in local civic groups.”
She also hadn’t decided whether to run as a Republican or Democrat until shortly before meeting Chopp. “I wanted him to realize that I was going to be fairly independent, coming from this part of the state,” Moser says. “But Frank assured me that he gives the Democrats quite a bit of latitude and there’s a lot of diversity among the Democratic Party.”
And that’s why Chopp’s Democratic critics say their current majority is too unwieldy: If it’s stacked with Democrats who are as red as they are blue, what’s the point? “As you grow, you sacrifice quality in favor of quantity,” says Olympia representative Brendan Williams, “and you start to lose cohesion on the issues that matter most and that really define us as Democrats. That is the challenge in keeping a large, diverse group of people happy.” Williams says he and other progressives who have chafed under Chopp’s rule aren’t in office “just to muddle along and be better than the Republicans, [to] inflict Democratic cuts on social programs that are more compassionate than Republican cuts. At the end of the day, they’re still cuts.”
Brian Weinstein, the ex-senator from Mercer Island, puts the point more sharply: “I think Frank wants to oversee as many people as possible, and as a result of doing that, he totally dilutes what the party stands for.” Weinstein tangled very publicly with Chopp in the press after passing a Homebuyers’ Bill of Rights in the Senate only to watch the House version of the bill die in committee. He decided to step down last year, after his first term. “There’s a lot of people in the Eastern suburbs who call themselves Democrats, and in some respects they are, but they’re so much
For some House Democrats the tension grows even as their caucus’s majority increases—and as Chopp’s perceived ability, or desire, to pass progressive legislation shrinks along with the state budget. Yet for all the hollering, Chopp’s command in the House seems secure for the foreseeable future. “I think everybody who is criticizing him imagines themselves in his role, or won’t support somebody else who’s more likely to become speaker,” says Williams. “And so that dissension never really coalesces around an alternative.” Seattle Senator Ed Murray, a former member of the House, says the lack of opposition has even more to do with poor leadership development within Chopp’s caucus. “I mean, Lynn Kessler is the only person I could think of at this point who could step in and be speaker immediately,” says Murray. “I think he’s safe.”
Chopp brushes off the criticism and points to that list of Democratic accomplishments since he became speaker: defending the state’s minimum wage from attempts to repeal it, passing America’s second paid family leave act, requiring that insurance companies cover mental illness, expanding domestic partnership rights for gays and lesbians…the list goes on. “If you give me any member, I can tell you what I’ve done to help them get their stuff done,” he says, and offers an example before I can respond. “Brendan Williams—I’m sure he’s one of the people you talked to. He passed one of the best, most progressive pieces of legislation…the Insurance Fair Conduct Bill [a 2007 act allowing policyholders to sue their insurers if their claims were unreasonably denied]. He passed it, despite all of the corporate interest against it. Who else?”
When I ask Chopp if his strategy for uniting liberals and moderates is driven, not by policy, but by a desire to keep Republicans out of the majority, he screws up his face in disgust. “No, no, no. I just look at the good things that we want to get done, and we figure out a way of organizing our efforts to get those things done. So if people have something that they haven’t gotten done, let me know.”
Chopp says he’s learned a lot in his 10 years as speaker, not least of which is how to deal with the different personalities in his caucus. “When you’re thrust into a new position, well, you’re going to make some mistakes,” he says, “and the key is to try to learn from them and really try to do better and reconnect with people.”
When I ask him for specifics, he shoots back. “What I’ve screwed up?”
No, what are some things you’ve learned?
“I would be a little too forceful with some people, and that was definitely not the right approach,” he muses. “So part of it is just trying to figure out the best way of working with each caucus member, because they’re all different and they’re all unique.”
He’s also working on accepting criticism. Harsh articles and sneering bloggers used to bother him, but now he’s “philosophical” about them. He focuses instead on the things he’s accomplished. “I’m reading a book on Jefferson and Hamilton that one of our caucus members gave me. And I know they didn’t have blogs back then, but oh, man. There were newspapers that were for Jefferson—I guess the eventual Democrats—and then there were newspapers that were totally for Hamilton and the Federalists. And a lot of times, people would be writing these scathing attacks in the newspapers and not identifying themselves. They’d have a code name or whatever. It put [my critics’ attacks] in real perspective: This kind of public opinion has been there literally since the day the country was created and almost in the same kind of style as the blogs: They’re highly opinionated and many times very uninformed, and also, quite often, anonymous.”
And then he laughs.