It's crunch time for the Democrats' one-party rule

Speaker Frank Chopp has gone invisible to the public, but we are about to see how well he can keep his large majority together.
Crosscut archive image.
Speaker Frank Chopp has gone invisible to the public, but we are about to see how well he can keep his large majority together.

Editors note: To celebrate Crosscut's 10th anniversary as a local news organization, so we are featuring the stories from April 1, 2007 on our homepage.

For my first foray into these Crosscut reports, I want to focus on Democratic one-party rule in Olympia. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp is generally regarded as the most powerful member of the Washington Legislature. Not an easy man to judge, since Chopp spends most of his time — at least from my observation — in private meetings and behind closed doors with his caucus (oh, boy do Democrats like to caucus!).

He rarely presides over the House floor debates, leaving that job to Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick. Speaker Chopp wields great power, operates largely behind-the-scenes, and his party rules Olympia by a wide margin. Perhaps more than anyone else in Olympia, Chopp needs to be held to account by the press. And yet of late Chopp has been largely unavailable to the statehouse press corps.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Chopp held weekly, informal press conferences in his corner office in the Capitol. Then came the day he made a churlish, off-the-cuff remark about NASCAR legend Richard Petty (something to do with drunken driving, which wasn't true). It got reported and after that Chopp cancelled his weekly press briefings.

Crosscut archive image.
Frank Chopp

His press people say he got busy with legislative deadlines, but the general feeling in the press corps is the speaker has a thin skin. If he doesn't like what the press is saying about him, he doesn't feel the need to meet with us.

By contrast, Gov. Chris Gregoire almost invariably holds a weekly news conference on Monday mornings, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is averaging a press avail (as we call them) every week, and minority Republicans make themselves available to the press weekly. There is a culture and tradition in Olympia that the political leaders meet regularly with the Capitol press corps.

Word is that Chopp felt the press corps had been unfair to him, but he's slowly crawling out of his shell and has been meeting one-on-one with reporters who request an interview.

The seclusion has helped majority Democrats to keep their family squabbles private. But the Democratic tent is a big one, and there are plenty of differences of opinion. I'm told there was quite a passionate internal debate over Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick's auto theft bill (HB 1001). Lovick is a retired Washington State Patrol trooper. His bill would crack down on serial car thieves (Washington reportedly ranks fourth in the nation for car theft — which seems hard to believe). Lovick's bill gets tough not just on adults but on juvenile car thieves.

This fired up a group of more liberal House Democrats, as well as those who are passionate about children's issues, who argued that the bill is too harsh on juvenile offenders and that society has an obligation to rehabilitate them. Despite this protestation, the auto theft measure passed the House with bipartisan support. A splinter group of 16 Democrats voted no.

More such splits will appear as the session moves into crunch time, when pet bills fall by the wayside and others reveal the split between urban liberals and Chopp's centrist approach. With a big majority, it's a lot easier for unhappy members of the majority to peel off, since it doesn't jeopardize most measures and can play well back in the district. Majority Democrats, many of whom come from suburban and swing districts, are less likely to vote for more liberal or more urban issues.

One important area where unity might falter is the Rainy Day Fund. Gregoire and Senate Democrats, and many Republicans, want a constitutionally protected reserve fund for future downturns of the economy. House Budget Chair Helen Sommers does not support the concept and did not include it in her budget. Speaker Chopp tells The Associated Press that it will pass. This could be a Democratic fight worth watching over the next couple of weeks.

Correction, 4/3/2007: Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown's staff tells me that, in fact, she's only cancelled two of her weekly gatherings this legislative session. One was because of illness, the other because of legislative deadlines. This article has been changed to reflect that.


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