Olympia's two influential leaders will battle it out
A lobbyist vented in the Elway Poll's comments section, blaming Republican and Democratic leaders alike for the 2017 legislative deadlock, which infamously included a near-shutdown of state government.
The lobbyist, posting anonymously, wrote: “With a partisan governor whose reactions are after the fact, a Senate R leader who spends most of his time trying to be a tough guy, a House D leader who operates like a Mafioso lord behind the scenes, a Senate D leader who just throws daggers at multiple targets and a House R leader who just wants everyone to get along.…This session was doomed from the start.”
The “tough guy” is Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. The “Mafioso lord” is House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
Until the Nov. 7 election, they led two equal majority caucuses — the Democrats in the House and the Republicans in the Senate — through five years of deadlocks in Olympia over budgets and the spending needed to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling to fix the state’s education system. Then the Democrats took a Republican Senate seat in a Nov. 7 special election to replace Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who died of cancer in 2016. Consequently, the GOP’s one-vote edge in the Senate switched to a 25–24 Democratic advantage, and Schoesler switched from a majority leader to a minority leader.
Still Schoesler had been one of the three most influential leaders in Olympia besides Chopp and Gov. Jay Inslee for the past five years. He is the co-architect of today’s legislative environment. He will remain an influential figure when the 2018 session begins in January. And if the Republicans regain a Senate seat next November, his clout will return.
Both Schoesler and Chopp are demonized by the other party.
There are plenty of similarities between the two leaders. Both preach empowering their caucus members. Both are experienced parliamentary tacticians. Both are from safe districts, facing no real election challenges for many years.
This past year, each has had such a slim majority that neither could afford to lose a single vote in any showdown — testing their persuasive and leadership skills.
“Both are mentally tough, and both have thick hides, and they understand all 49 (legislative) districts,” said one longtime Olympia professional. (That person and some others interviewed for this story requested anonymity, because of holding positions that require the ability to work with the parties' leaders.)
Politically, though, Schoesler and Chopp are light-years apart.
Chopp is a stereotypical FDR liberal who sees state government as a creative force. His eyes light up when he lists buildings and programs that the Legislature has created. He is proud of this year’s paid-family-leave law, an idea he nurtured for roughly 20 years before achieving success.
Schoesler is the poster boy for not raising taxes and not spending more money than absolutely necessary. “No new taxes” has been his war cry as the Senate’s leader, and he has frequently criticized Gov. Jay Inslee as enamored of new-taxes.
Schoesler declined to be interviewed for this story. Chopp, while speaking for this story, declined to analyze or criticize Schoesler’s work.
Schoesler, 60, is the only full-time farmer in the Legislature. His ancestral roots go back to German speakers from Russia’s Volga River region who moved to the United States in the 19th century and settled on a farm near Ritzville. Schoesler is in the fifth generation to run that farm. “I can’t remember not wanting to be a farmer,” he once told KUOW in an interview. His parents and extended family weren’t really into politics.
Schoesler obtained an agribusiness associate degree from Spokane Community College. From 1977 to 1980, he worked simultaneously on the family farm and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. In 1981, he took over the farm, which raises wheat, canola and cattle.
His family’s experience with the ups and downs of farming helped shape his caution about government finances. “Having been so far down when I was 12 years old, we didn’t know if we’d make it another year,” he told KUOW. “I am very, very scared of debt.…Americans have a problem with debt. Government has a problem with debt.”
He joined the Washington House of Representatives in 1993, representing the sprawling, heavily agricultural 9th Legislative District between Spokane and the Tri-Cities. “In his House career, Mark fit in with the bomb-throwers. He still enjoys it,” said one of the longtime Olympia professionals. Schoesler moved to the Senate in 2004.
When two Democrats switched sides to join 24 Republicans in December 2012 and take control of the state Senate, Schoesler became the formal leader of the 26-member Majority Coalition Caucus. Renegade Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina received the title of Senate majority leader, but, in actuality, Schoesler and Tom shared joint leadership. When Tom decided to retire, Schoesler officially became the majority leader in 2015.
In leadership, Schoesler has mostly played defense against House Democratic proposals. The Senate Republicans rarely sent any major bills to the House that they were not prepared to sacrifice as a bargaining chip. Senate Republicans scored victories by deadlocking or severely trimming House proposals; they had additional leverage because Democrats had few GOP bills to hold hostage as their own bargaining leverage.
The Senate GOP has generally succeeded in holding off Democratic proposals to raise taxes or close down tax breaks to boost court-mandated educational improvements. Schoesler’s oft-repeated mantra over the years has been: “No new taxes.” As he put in a profile in a church regional newsletter, “If money is taken forcibly from people in taxes, we need to spend it wisely. People want the best value for their money.”
Until this year, the biggest GOP victory of this decade — other than defeating Democratic bills and tax proposals — has been the Republican-originated tuition cuts at the state’s universities, community colleges and technical schools.
This past session, however, Senate Republicans finally sent a major bill to the House which it was not prepared to sacrifice or significantly change — and which the Democrats would not budge on. The stalled bill would open up digging wells in rural areas beyond what the environmentalist-minded Democrats were willing to concede. In return, the Senate GOP refused to greenlight $4 billion worth of construction projects across Washington.
A longtime Olympia professional who frequently disagrees with Schoesler’s politics praised him for building a strong, cohesive Senate team and for agreeing to talk with almost anybody.
Similarly, Republican state Sen. Kirk Pearson said, “He looks at people and knows their strong points.…He lets everyone have their points of view, hear things out. Mark is a laid-back person, but extremely engaged.”
However, two Olympia professionals, including one who leans Republican, both described Schoesler as having “a chip on his shoulder” — a phrase that might echo with fans of the Seattle Seahawks. And one professional said Schoesler is more likely than Chopp to go for a win for the sake of a win. An example: in 2016, when the Senate GOP caucus suddenly held a Friday afternoon vote to fire state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, completely catching Senate Democrats, Inslee and Peterson, off guard. Democrats gnashed their teeth, and Senate Republicans celebrated.
While Schoesler’s family was never much into politics, Chopp’s parents were political junkies. His family immigrated from Croatia in the early 20th century. His father, who worked in the old Roslyn coal mine at the age of 12, was a union member. Social issues dominated the dinner table. “We believed in raising everybody up,” he said. Chopp always knew he would go into some type of social activism.
Chopp, 64, grew up in Bremerton and graduated from the University of Washington. He became a community organizer, eventually becoming executive director of the Fremont Public Association and that organization — more recently called Solid Ground —helped set up an emergency food bank, a clothing bank and an employment program.
An early challenge was to coordinate efforts of a huge number of food banks. “They were literally fighting over crumbs. If you can organize food banks, you can organize the Legislature,” Chopp said.
“He’s able to process information at an incredible speed. Frank has a wide bandwidth,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. “He gets pretty down in the weeds,” said Pearson, the Republican. Chopp almost compulsively writes lists of information, thoughts and follow-up chores brought up in conversations.
Chopp’s district is the 43rd — which is essentially Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the University District and Wallingford, about as liberal as any chunk of land in Washington.
After being elected to the House in 1994, Chopp says he figured he would have a mundane legislative career, ending up as a mid-level committee chair. Then he was drafted as an internally nervous co-speaker of the House with East Wenatchee Republican Clyde Ballard when the legislative body was split 49–49 between the two parties. A Democratic majority in 2002 turned Chopp into the House speaker, a position he has now held longer than anyone in state history.
As a community organizer, Chopp developed a philosophy of teamwork and spreading around credit. He has a low public profile in the Capitol Dome — seen as commendable by his allies, while also contributing to the sinister, Mafia-boss vibe that his critics sometimes profess to feel. Republicans have grumbled through the years that Chopp rules his caucus and the House with an iron fist.
One Olympia professional, who is not a Chopp fan, contended the speaker has deliberately overloaded House budget proposals over the years with tax proposals that please leftist constituencies and legislators — even while knowing the Senate would reject the ideas out of hand.
In the Elway Poll’s comments, the lobbyist accused Chopp and his lieutenants of agreeing to a business-and-occupation tax compromise with Senate Republicans, while also working after the fact to sabotage that same compromise. “A lot of trust was lost this session due to the House Democrats pushing the governor to break their own deal and veto the manufacturing tax credit.That will have long-term implications that are toxic for Olympia,” the lobbyist wrote.
In the final analysis, Schoesler usually appears to mark success by what is stopped, such as defeated taxes, tax breaks kept open and money not spent — items that appeal to fiscal hawks.
On the other hand, Chopp marks success by what government does for people, happy with incremental progress year-by-year as long as tangible results materialize. Under Chopp, the House Democrats have led the push to adequately fund basic education for the state’s schools in accordance with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court decision.
One observer said: “I think Frank will be remembered for solid accomplishments. I can’t think of any for Mark.”
That may miss a key point for Schoesler among his supporters: Doing less can be seen as fitting for a conservative philosophy that embraces the minimizing of government burdens on the people.
Even with the shift to Democratic control, Schoesler and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, still have a major weapon to push through a major piece of GOP legislation in 2018 on water and construction.
In 2016, a Washington Supreme Court decision — the so-called Hirst ruling — blocked landowners from digging new wells unless they can prove it won’t threaten nearby stream levels needed for fish. The ruling essentially halted construction of homes and businesses in many rural areas.
In 2017, Washington Senate Republicans blocked the state budget’s passage for $4 billion worth of construction-related projects over the House Democrats’ refusal to pass the bill they wanted on the Hirst issue. And in 2018, the majority Democrats still cannot put the capital budget into action without GOP help. While the Democrats now have the votes to pass the budget in the Senate, they would need 60 percent of the votes in each chamber to approve the bonds to pay for the $4 billion.
So, Schoesler and Kristiansen still have the power to get a GOP-favorable solution to the Hirst issue — the type of clout they have not hesitated to use in the past five years. And this will be a major challenge for Chopp and the new Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.