Can a Socialist unseat the powerful Democratic Speaker of the House?

The 43rd Legislative District (click to enlarge) Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Spear recently moved from Capitol Hill to north of the Ship Canal in the 43rd District, a move she attributed to cheaper rent. Pedersen noted that, in doing so, Spear also moved from the city council's District 3 to District 4. Seven of Seattle's nine city council members will be elected by geographical districts beginning in 2015. Sawant lives in District 3. Incumbent Jean Godden will run for the District 4 seat. Pedersen speculated that Spear, following in Sawant’s footsteps, is running against Chopp to raise her profile in preparation for a future District 4 city council race against Godden.

Holden downplayed that idea. A move more than a year prior to an election is not unheard of. And he noted similar moves with political overtones occur, such as Democratic politician Shari Song's recent move from Bellevue to Federal Way shortly before she announced her candidacy for the 30th Legislative District Senate race.

After Spear, now 32, graduated from Randolph-Macon College, she earned a master's degree in climate science at the University of South Florida. She moved to Seattle to study microfossils at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. She was fascinated by fossils the size of a grain of sand being able to tell stories about the environment of more than 100,000 years ago. Politically, she had always been very liberal, but she was cynical about both parties and their links to big business. To her, Democrats were the lesser of two evils.

Then 2011 rolled around with Occupy Wall Street and The Arab Spring. Those events stirred a stronger political passion, which came into focus after some conversations with Sawant. Spear joined the Socialist Alternative party. And she joined Sawant in her Socialist Alternative campaigns. Spear then left a climate-science job to become a full-time community activist with rent control as a major passion.

Spear has portrayed Chopp as a servant to corporate interests who is doing little for working people. She criticized him for not getting a $12-an-hour minimum wage bill out of the House in earlier this year. "Frank Chopp is to the right of this district. He doesn't really fight for issues that matter to this district," Spear said. Spear said she would not accept donations from any corporate interests, and the Washington Public Disclosure Commission backs that up. Spear has raised $17,343, all in private donations.

Chopp, now 61, grew up in Bremerton and graduated from the University of Washington. He became a community organizer — a director of the Cascade Community Center, of the Pike Market Senior Center and of the North Community Service Center. He then became executive director of the Fremont Public Association. That organization helped set up an emergency food bank, a clothing bank and an employment program. "I know the district. I've worked in it my entire adult life,' Chopp said.

He was elected to the Washington state House in 1994, becoming co-speaker in 1999 when Republicans and Democrats each had 49 representatives. Chopp became House speaker in 2002 when Democrats gained control.

Chopp prefers to work behind the scenes in Olympia. He said as a community organizer, he developed a philosophy of teamwork, spreading around credit and empowering the people around him. Chopp does not introduce bills, but instead shepherds Democrat caucus members as they move legislation, which he sees as the proper role of a House speaker. Practically every major bill that becomes law has his fingerprints directly or indirectly on it.

Chopp rarely speaks to the press in Olympia, and has a reputation for having a tight grip on the House Democratic caucus. GOP House members and senator routinely grumble about him blocking Republican bills. "Frank thinks 15 moves ahead," Pedersen said.

About Spear’s characterization of his work, Chopp said, "She doesn’t know me at all. I'm not the tool of anybody." Chopp said he has shepherded roughly 70 state-funded housing projects that have been set up in and around the 43rd Districts. He helped with a 1998 initiative that raised the state's minimum wage, and keeps it moving up with inflation. Noting that bills often take a few sessions to negotiate all the political hurdles in Olympia, he said that Rep. Jessyn Farrell's $12-an-hour statewide minimum wage bill, which did not make it to a House floor vote last session, will be revived in the 2015 session.

Chopp has received a long list of labor endorsements. And he has raised $133,553 so far from a mix of unions, corporations, lobbying groups and private citizens.

Although their Aug. 5 primary race is attracting early attention, Spear and Chopp will be facing off again in the fall general election. Whoever wins in November will face decisions about a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans on how to deal with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court mandate — the so-called McCleary ruling — to improve the student-teacher ratios in Grades K-3 and take some additional measures to help public schools. The GOP is against increasing taxes and closing tax breaks to tackle those requirements, while the Democrats in Olympia support those tax-related measures. The 2015 legislative session also faces a long-term standoff over a possible $10 billion to $12 billion transportation package, which would likely include a gas tax increase of 10 to 12 cents a gallon. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to introduce some type of legislation to deal with global warming and ocean acidification in 2015. The most likely measure would be one creating limits on carbon emissions in the state, and possibly installing a cap-and-trade system. Under a cap-and-trade system, Washington would have an overall annual limit on its carbon dioxide emissions. Limits would be set for specific geographic areas. Firms would obtain rights for specific amounts of emissions in those areas and could trade their rights. 

On McCleary, Spear supports fully funding the Supreme Court's requirements without cutting social services, contending the extra money should come from extra taxes on major corporations and the wealthy. Chopp wants to stick to the Democratic position that McCleary should be fully funded without cutting into social programs. Democrats have pitched several plans to close tax breaks to raise the extra money, with the Republican-oriented Senate Majority Coalition Caucus blocking those moves.

 "They're gonna have to realize that we've gotta meet McCleary,” Chopp said. He believes the Supreme Court's increasing pressure on enforcing its 2012 ruling will boost the push for extra McCleary funding.

Chopp characterized future transportation negotiations as open-ended on what could materialize. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the transportation package deadlock have also changed. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus has said that 13 out of its 26 members support a majority coalition package that includes a gas tax increase somewhat in line with the Democratic proposal, plus proposed budget shifts that the Democrats oppose. But only eight out of those 13 majority coalition members have publicly identified, which Chopp's interprets as only eight coalition members actually supporting the GOP package submitted to the Democrats. And with Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, not seeking re-election, that eight drops to seven.

Spear opposes any increase in gas taxes for the transportation package, saying business-related taxes can be increased and tax breaks can be closed instead.

On Inslee's climate change ideas, Spear opposes a cap-and-trade proposal, saying that would send work elsewhere. She wants alternative power sources supported; she is against the use of fossil fuels. Chopp said the recommendations of a carbon emissions task force will likely form the basis for the Democrats' legislative push on this issue in 2015. Inslee's staff unveiled a draft proposal to the task force last Tuesday. Then the task force is supposed to discuss and modify Inslee's draft proposal in order to make formal recommendations to the governor by December. Inslee will use those recommendations to design his carbon emissions and probable cap-and-trade legislation. "I'm open-minded on what we should do. … We ought to do everything we can do to reduce pollution. That's not only good for the environment, but good for job growth," Chopp said.

The Aug. 5 primary will tell whether Spear has any decent chance against Chopp when the two face off for real in November.

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