The exchange highlighted a key question now facing voters in Seattle’s 43rd Legislative District: Is Chopp, the longest serving House speaker in state history, progressive enough to represent the most far-left district in Washington state?
In 2020, more voters than ever are answering: maybe not.
Lascelles, a nonprofit founder and advocate for sex workers, performed better against Chopp in last month’s primary than anyone who has ever challenged the 25-year incumbent.
In a three-way race, Lascelles, who is running as part of the Seattle People’s Party, won slightly more than 31% of the vote.
That number might not seem remarkable at first glance. But against Chopp, it’s something no other candidate has accomplished — not even in 1994, the first year Chopp ran for the Legislature.
Even Kshama Sawant, who ran against Chopp before winning election to the Seattle City Council, received a lower share of votes in 2012.
Significantly, last month’s election also marked the first time Chopp has failed to win a majority of support in any election since his first one.
Chopp received 49.8% of the primary vote. Almost all other voters supported either Lascelles or Jessi Murray, a Democrat who was eliminated in the primary. Like Lascelles, Murray ran to Chopp’s left.
That means about half of voters in Chopp’s district supported candidates who argued that the former speaker hasn’t been aggressive enough in championing progressive priorities, such as imposing new taxes on the wealthy, combating climate change and providing universal health care for Washington state residents.
The 43rd District, which has grown by 50,000 people since 2010, includes Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Fremont, Wallingford, Eastlake, Ravenna, Belltown and the University District.
In addition to being significantly younger than the 67-year-old Chopp, Lascelles would bring a different perspective to the Legislature in several other ways. For one, Lascelles is gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. House and Senate administrators aren’t aware of any Washington state lawmakers, past or present, who have publicly identified as gender nonbinary, although it’s not something the Legislature specifically tracks.
Lascelles is also Black, disabled and has experienced homelessness. They say those experiences better equip them to understand the needs of marginalized communities and work with those communities to craft effective policies, as opposed to legislating solutions from the top down. Right now, Lascelles said, laws intended to help stigmatized groups such as sex workers too often end up lacking teeth — or, worse, hurting those they are designed to protect.
More broadly, Lascelles has criticized Chopp’s two decades of leadership as too incremental and not bold enough. “When you count the wins over 25 years, it doesn’t really feel like that much,” said Lascelles, who in recent years worked to pass a statewide strippers’ bill of rights and repeal anti-loitering laws in Seattle.
Lascelles, who previously worked as chief operating officer of Full Tilt Ice Cream, also founded two nonprofits dedicated to helping sex workers, along with a business that makes hand sanitizer for people living or working outside.
Sherae Lascelles, right, works with Jasmin Ball on building community sinks in their work space on Sept. 8, 2020. The sinks are to serve as hygiene stations for people working and living outside during the pandemic. Lascelles, a candidate of the Seattle People’s Party, is challenging state Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)
Chopp, for his part, has released new proposals in recent months to tax businesses and use the money to expand state-sponsored child care and public health care. As evidence of his progressive bona fides, he points to measures the Legislature passed last year to completely cover the cost of college tuition for low-income families, as well as move the state to 100% clean electricity.
Like Lascelles, Chopp’s career in politics began in activism: He started out protesting the demolition of low-income housing in South Lake Union in the 1970s and co-founded the Seattle Tenants Union in his younger days. Chopp also served as the executive director of the Fremont Public Association, now called Solid Ground, a nonprofit social service agency focused on fighting poverty.
But in recent years, Chopp has been criticized as too cautious when it comes to advancing certain policies sought by other Democrats, including gun control measures and a bill to repeal the death penalty.
Chopp said that as speaker, he had to protect the House Democratic majority, which sometimes meant not advancing policies that would be popular in Seattle, but less popular in more moderate swing districts around the state. The state Senate was also controlled by a mostly Republican coalition from 2013 to 2017, which Chopp said limited Democrats' ability to pass progressive legislation.
Chopp said he frequently works hand in hand with groups representing communities of color, including when he pushed the Legislature to pass a state DREAM Act in 2014. That measure extended state financial aid for college to young immigrants living in the United States without legal residency status.
Seferiana Day, a Democratic political consultant whose firm worked on Jessi Murray’s campaign, said the primary results signal to her that many voters in the 43rd District want a change.
“People are ready for someone new who is actually going to be progressive, and can relate to the younger voters who are using transit, who are renting — just having someone in office who looks like us, who shares our experiences.” Day said.
Even so, defeating Chopp will be difficult, especially for a candidate who lacks the financial backing and support of one of the major parties.
While Lascelles has been endorsed by the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Chopp has won the support of numerous labor unions, as well as local Democratic Party groups.
Where the candidates stand
On some issues, the candidates agree broadly about the direction the state needs to go. They both support the decriminalization of sex work, as well as stopping sweeps of unauthorized homeless encampments — although only Lascelles routinely highlights those issues as key parts of their campaign platform.
When it comes to resolving the state’s looming budget deficit, the candidates agree that cutting social services, such as food and rent assistance, is not the right path.
They differ, however, in how swiftly and dramatically they want to revamp the state’s tax code to pay for public assistance programs and COVID-19 relief.
Lascelles says lawmakers need to massively overhaul the state’s tax system all at once if they are to truly help people who are barely surviving economically. For Lascelles, that means implementing a wealth tax, an income tax and capital gains tax simultaneously, while also reducing the sales tax, “which is hurting the people who are most economically underprivileged.” Lascelles wants to use that tax revenue to pay for universal child care, affordable housing, shelter for people experiencing homelessness, more robust public transit and a move toward a statewide single-payer health care system.
While Democratic legislators frequently talk about the need to reform Washington’s regressive tax system, the changes they have made in the past few years have been smaller in scale. They have enacted new taxes on businesses to expand college financial aid, for instance, but have not been able to pass a capital gains tax, which would apply to profits from selling assets such as stocks and bonds.
Chopp said the capital gains tax is a policy he supports wholeheartedly, but that has been difficult to get through the state Senate, which includes some moderate Democratic members reticent about tax increases. For the past three years, both legislative chambers have been controlled by Democrats.
Compared with Lascelles, Chopp is proposing more targeted taxes. One would affect corporations that pay salaries exceeding $500,000. Money from the tax would go toward improving the state’s public health response to the coronavirus crisis, improving behavioral health treatment and expanding state-funded health care, among other things.
Chopp is also proposing a new program to expand access to child care, which he said would work much like the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program. The new program would similarly rely on a payroll tax, the bulk of which employers would be asked to pay, Chopp said.
Unlike Lascelles, Chopp isn’t focused on passing a statewide income tax. He noted that nearly two-thirds of Washington voters shot down a proposal to enact an income tax on high earners in 2010. Courts in Washington state have also ruled that graduated income taxes, which affect people in higher income brackets more than others, violate the state constitution. A recent tax Seattle tried to impose on the wealthy was ruled unconstitutional for that reason.
Lascelles, however, says there’s no excuse to not keep working at the state level to try to change an inequitable tax system.
“Saying you shouldn't even try because it might get challenged, it might take more time — what have we been doing the last 20-some years, allowing it to get to this point?” Lascelles asked. “We could have gone through the process of actually passing something, letting it get challenged, and fighting that out in court, and learning from whatever didn't work and trying again.”
Chopp said his new child care plan is an example of how progressive policies actually get passed.
“To get started, you’ve got to go big, but you’ve also got to be realistic about what you do," he said in a recent interview.
In addition to his new tax proposals, Chopp listed his affordable housing efforts — such as co-founding the state Housing Trust Fund and ensuring affordable housing gets built above Sound Transit light rail stations — as important policies he has pushed to help people living on the margins.
“I have the plan, I’ve got the specifics, I know how to get this stuff done,” Chopp said.
‘A sign of the times’
Chopp isn’t the only longtime legislator who is facing an unusually tough election challenge this year. In Pierce County’s 29th Legislative District, state Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, barely scraped by in the primary election, after fending off a formidable challenge from fellow Democrat Sharlett Mena. Mena, a special assistant to the state director of ecology, came within 85 votes of defeating Kirby and keeping him from advancing to the November election.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, might lose his race to attorney David Hackney, another Democrat. Hackney led Hudgins by about 12 percentage points in the primary. Besides Tukwila, the 11th Legislative District includes Renton, parts of South Seattle and Kent.
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he thinks frustration with Republican leadership at the federal level is leading to a “primal scream going up for wanting something different.”
Pedersen said that isn’t necessarily a reflection on Chopp’s performance, specifically, but rather is “a sign of the times.”
“Part of it is he’s a 60-something, straight white guy, and I think there is a sense he has been around for a really long time,” said Pedersen, Chopp’s seatmate in the 43rd District, who isn't up for reelection this year.
In contrast to those who think Chopp isn’t as progressive as his constituents, Pedersen called the former speaker “very firmly in the center of gravity of the district.” He predicted Chopp would still win the race.
Randy Pepple, a Republican political consultant, said he can’t see the contest going any other way. He characterized the primary results as a “protest vote” from Seattleites upset that Chopp “isn't a socialist.”
Lascelles said they consider the Seattle People’s Party to be collectivist, which is “often compatible with socialism” but not exactly the same. One of the party’s key focuses is on dismantling racism.
Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant, said she, too, thinks Chopp is likely safe. But Allen said the record-breaking turnout projected for November also is likely to bring out many younger, more progressive voters, which may create a different dynamic this year than in Chopp’s past reelection campaigns.
Ben Anderstone, a Democratic political consultant, said the district’s recent population surge means there are a lot of newly eligible voters, many of whom will be participating for the first time in the general election. That’s a group that “tends to be pretty good for Sherae,” he said.
Given those factors, Anderstone said, it’s not impossible that Lascelles could defeat Chopp in November.
“Looking at the primary result and knowing that this is going to be a really, really high turnout presidential election that is likely to have a really energized progressive base, he should be taking this challenge quite seriously,” Anderstone said.