It's the ultimate outsider versus the ultimate insider. The Socialist versus the Speaker of the House. Jess Spear versus Frank Chopp.
On paper, the state legislative race in Seattle looks like a mismatch. Chopp is the most powerful lawmaker in Olympia, the longest serving House speaker in Washington's history. The question is whether Spear is more aligned than Chopp with what the people of the 43rd Legislative District really want to be done in Olympia.
Is she the Socialist version of shoestring-budget Tea Party candidate David Brat, who upset U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a recent Virginia Republican primary? By coincidence, Spear's undergraduate degree is from Virginia's Randolph-Macon College, which is where Brat is an economics professor.
Seattle's 43rd District consists of Capitol Hill, the U District, Wallingford, Fremont and a part of downtown Seattle. It is arguably the most liberal chunk of land in Washington, despite the presence of Broadmoor, the only Seattle neighborhood to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012. It's Washington's smallest legislative district geographically. The most densely populated. Fewer school kids than most legislative districts. Stocked with three full-fledged universities. Lots of professionals. Home of the well-read, ultra-liberal weekly The Stranger.
Is this a bloc of voters that prefers having a legislative chess master playing an incremental, long-range game in Olympia? Or is this a voting bloc frustrated with Olympia's lukewarm response to the 43rd residents' brand of liberalism, and eager to shake things up with an experiment?
Spear's plan as a legislator would be to downplay negotiating directly with Republicans and moderate Democrats. Instead, she envisions creating grassroots groups in moderate and conservative districts to apply constituent pressure on the other legislators. "We need to think out of the box to get things done in Olympia," she said Rather than sitting at tables to talk with other legislators, "I'm talking about rallying and community organizing in their districts."
Dominic Holden, a political writer for The Stranger, said many 43rd District voters are frustrated with the deadlocks in Olympia on education, transportation and other issues: "Frank Chopp is not bringing home the policies they support." Of Spear, he says, "She can offer something Frank Chopp can't — change.“
Spear is a protégé of Kshama Sawant, Seattle's high-profile Socialist Alternative city council member and a sparkplug for the successful $15-an-hour minimum wage movement in the city. Sawant ran against Chopp in 2012 and got creamed, tallying 28 percent of the vote to Chopp's 72 percent. But that campaign made Sawant known. And in 2013, she rode her $15-minimum-wage campaign to squeak out a win over longtime city council member, Richard Conlin.
"Now we've established socialists and the Socialist Alternative party as a legitimate political force," Holden said.
But Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who also represents the 43rd District and is a Chopp ally, noted that the area has a high percentage of professionals and well-to-do residents — not the types most likely to buy into a socialist message. And he speculated that Spear's go-it-alone-in-Olympia style could easily backfire in the Washington House. "The Legislature is a team activity," Pedersen said.
In fact, Spear was ambivalent when asked if she would try to caucus with the Democrats in the House, if elected. Spear said she would meet with Democratic legislators on some issues, but was hazy about understanding the concept of the routine caucus meetings held by Republicans and Democrats in Olympia for briefings, internal debates, vote-counting and strategy sessions. The Stranger's editorial board, which includes Holden and also strongly supports Sawant and her Socialist positions in Seattle's politics, recently endorsed Chopp for re-election, contending that Spear's style would not be effective in a House full of Republicans and moderate Democrats. However, several Stranger writers (not including Holden) published an opposing opinion piece that endorsed Spear, arguing Chopp is not moving the Legislature fast enough in the direction favored by 43rd District voters.
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