Chopp, Chopp! The method in the speaker's maddening ways

How Frank Chopp rules Olympia, and why he left the Sonic saviors sputtering. He's become a classic political boss, but he also remains true to the values of helping the poor.
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Frank Chopp

How Frank Chopp rules Olympia, and why he left the Sonic saviors sputtering. He's become a classic political boss, but he also remains true to the values of helping the poor.

State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, a veteran poverty warrior from Fremont Nation, is generally thought to be not just the most powerful speaker in memory but the most powerful political figure in the state. Powerful enough to intimidate both the governor and the barons of the Legislature.

He also moves in invisible ways, thus throwing media off his track. But now that the 2008 legislative session is over, some traces of his style and priorities are showing up. It's an unedifying picture of one man and inflexible rule, but also one where Chopp's core values of helping the poor motivate most of what he does.

Chris McGann of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer digs into the role of Chopp in the Sonics story. As is now clear, the Steve Ballmer group trying to save the basketball team and KeyArena, through orchestration by Mayor Greg Nickels, had been working closely with Chopp and the governor since December. Apparently a script had been worked out (a familiar one from the past) whereby the deal was put together backstage, so as not to stir up opponents, and was to have been run in the closing moments of the short 60-day session.

Instead, Chopp declared in the waning days that this was all too last-minute and couldn't be passed this year. Something along the same lines happened to the Husky Stadium advocates, who thought they had a green light from Chopp and even got some warm words of near-endorsement, only to find the speaker (citing, as he usually does, "the caucus") declaring the idea dead for this session. The University of Washington folks say they will be back next session, and I suspect they will have to agree to sale of naming rights to reduce the ask from the state.

Was Chopp just being duplicitous? Could be. But there's another way of looking at the method in his maddening tactics. Chopp is forever trying to cobble together broad packages, in something of the time-honored practice (remember Jim Ellis's Forward Thrust packaging of sports/parks/transit in the 1960s?) of passing difficult measures by adding all kinds of unrelated goodies to get other supporters.

Here's Chopp's revealing explanation to McGann: "There was never any promise to produce legislation for KeyArena. We talked about the basic general idea of doing this thing for a variety of local needs and most likely to do it over the interim."

The "variety of local needs," it turns out, included Husky Stadium, Seattle Center and KeyArena (probably without the Sonics), Puget Sound cleanup, King County arts, amateur sports, and low-income housing. A committee during "the interim" (meaning when the Legislature is not in session and reporters are less in evidence) will carve up the benefit package in quiet during the coming year, doubtless with Chopp keeping a sharp eye on the dealmaking. It's the classic way a political boss rewards and punishes. And it keeps the tax-raising until after the 2008 election, where Gov. Chris Gregoire might face a tough challenge.

The heart of the political matter here is the great big pot of stadium-related and visitor taxes that are coming up for grabs, as Safeco Field, the Kingdome, and Qwest Field are paid off. That puts millions of dollars per year in play, even though the hotels, restaurants, bars, and rental car companies were "promised" that the taxes, which all fall on their customers, were going to expire when paid.

So here's a chance to expand benefits, gladden the hearts of recipient groups, all without (technically) raising taxes. No Democratic speaker is going to miss that chance. Nor is he going to let powerful interests (like UW football or Sonic saviors) jump the gun and pick off their plum early.

In turn, this explanation of wanting to do a grand deal (backstage, of course) is at least as plausible as the political motivation of punting all tough decisions to past the 2008 election.

But Chopp's legislative style of reserving the big deal-cutting for himself is making plenty of enemies, among supplicants and other members of the caucus. Committee chairs spend a lot of time working a bill through the process, only to find that Chopp won't let it go to the floor for a vote if he wants to hold it for trading or just personally opposes it.

An example was this year's effort (the fourth annual try, actually) to get dedicated funding for King County's arts program, known as 4Culture. Year after year, the arts groups push for a permanent slice of the hotel-motel money to support the arts, as happens in some other cities and has been the case off and on for King County. The arts and heritage folks ally with the Sonics groups to broaden the base, only to sink with the ship. This year, the arts went alone, got their bill passed by a wide margin in the Senate, and then ran into Chopp's "veto." (As a cynical compromise, the funding was passed, but will expire in a year.) Once again, Chopp apparently wanted to hold arts funding hostage as he puts together the multi-beneficiary package in the coming year, and he's determined to bring his beloved priority of housing for the homeless into the omnibus bill.

Another example of Chopp's abiding interest in finding money for low-income housing was the way legislators stripped $65 million out of the hotel tax fund (which supports marketing expenses and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center) to balance the budget and divert $8 million for low-income housing. Hoteliers are fuming, and the pilfering may make them less willing to go along with Chopp's desire to put more of these visitor taxes into unrelated projects like cleaning up Puget Sound and housing the homeless.

The biggest example of the Chopp Method, though, is the Alaskan Way Viaduct problem, where Chopp has blocked the city's hopes for a tunnel and the governor's hopes for a quick solution. Chopp had his own scheme for replacing the aging waterfront freewqy, a kind of "elevated tunnel" with a park on top. (Three lanes side by side above Alaskan Way, with a linear park on top to enjoy the view.) He now has a new scheme, based on an idea from Paris, with a half-submerged tunnel, open to the water, and a park on top. That's not a bad concept, though it's hard to imagine that anyone wants to do Chopp any favors down in Viaduct land.

As the various parties try to sort out a new solution for the Seattle waterfront (divert some traffic through downtown, add some bus rapid transit, and build a four-lane surface boulevard along Elliott Bay), they are trying to find some ways through the Chopp roadblock. Some opportunities for getting into what's known as "Frank's values field": viewing platforms and low-income housing on some blocks.

That's how the game is played in Olympia these days. All roads lead to Chopp, and you better have something he likes if you want to pass his checkpoint. You'd think the lobbyists for various causes would know this, since it's been Chopp's M.O. ever since he ran the Fremont Public Association and extracted millions from the city for poverty causes. He's very entrenched, having recruited and elected many members of his Democratic majority and coached them in their early years. But the barons are restless, or leaving, tired of being jerked around so autocratically.

Whether there are enough angry Seattle interests to run a challenger against Chopp in his district, aided by the now legally affirmed top-two primary, is one question. Another is whether Chopp may aspire to a different office, such as mayor of Seattle or governor. Seems unlikely, unless he fears his days are numbered as speaker. He's discovered that the speaker's political clout can be greater than the governor's. As speaker, Chopp is already king of the mountain.


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