After 20 years representing Capitol Hill’s 43rd Legislative District, Frank Chopp has built a reputation as a quiet operator in the Washington state Legislature. He’s a behind a scenes powerbroker who, following the House Speaker custom, sponsors no legislation and hasn’t sent out a press release in years. That would explain the humbly self-typed, black-and-white campaign materials Chopp, 61, came bearing when he sat down with CHS last week at the 15th Ave Victrola.
“I don’t go out there issuing press releases because I want to build a team,” he said. “I see my role as a community organizer.”
After handily beating Kshama Sawant in 2012, Chopp is once again facing a young, firebrand socialist challenger in this bluest of blues central Seattle district. Jess Spear, a 32-year-old Sawant protege, Socialist Alternative candidate, and climate scientist, brashly chose affordable housing as a main campaign policy issue, an issue that Chopp has worked on for decades.
Given his wide popularity in the 43rd and mastery of Olympia, Chopp has plenty of reasons to be confident going into November’s election. But the successes of his former challenger may give him some pause this go around. Instead of fading into obscurity after her 2012 loss, Sawant went on to unseat a longtime Seattle City Council member and immediately became the progressive torch bearer on the left-leaning council.
So far, Spear’s main criticisms of Chopp have centered around his corporate campaign donations, including donations he received from Microsoft, Wyerhaeuser, and Boeing. Chopp has raised nearly $96,000 to Spear’s $3,150, but Chopp said he will “surplus” most of his funds to other progressive candidates, as he’s done in the past.
Chopp was born and raised in Bremerton to working class parents. After graduating from the University of Washington he quickly immersed himself in progressive causes. He once lived in a geodesic dome in a Cascade parking lot to protest the bulldozing of affordable housing in the area. Chopp eventually came to lead a successful housing nonprofit that would become Solid Ground.
Chopp’s Capitol Hill credentials go back to the 1970s when he was among the earliest residents of 16th and Aloha’s PRAG House, which recently suffered from an unfortunate attic fire. In 1994 he was elected to the state Legislature and became speaker in 1999, where he’s stayed ever since.
Assessing the record of the House Speaker can be a tricky undertaking. Of course, Chopp is happy to take partial credit for all the Democratic victories that occurred under his watch, while the Republican-dominated Senate provides a convenient scape goat for all the things he wasn’t able to get done. What’s hard to deny is that few current elected officials have done as much as Chopp has for affordable housing — among the top issues on Capitol Hill.
When asked to lay out his boldest plan to address affordable housing on Capitol Hill, Chopp proposed bonding against the state’s hotel/motel tax and use the funds to build thousands of units around central Seattle.
“The best approach is to build equity, to own it,” he said. “The key is to capture any public land that is available for affordable buildings.”
One of his proudest housing accomplishments was helping to create the state Housing Trust Fund. Chopp counts over 70 projects in the 43rd district alone that have benefitted from the fund, including 12th Avenue Arts. Since 1987 the Housing Trust Fund has built or maintained around 40,000 affordable units, according to the program’s website.
Spear, on the other hand, is an adamant supporter of rent control as a method to bring affordable housing to central Seattle and has vowed to lift the state’s ban on it — something Chopp said he supports, but doubts it would get enough votes to pass.
While Seattle’s elected officials has taken the lead nationwide in raising the minimum wage, the state has lagged behind. With the endorsement of several major unions, Chopp hopes to push a $12 minimum wage plan through the house this year. Again, Chopp said the senate could prove to be problematic and that Republican opposition would certainly put Spear’s $15 minimum wage proposal out of the question.
“At the state level, there’s not the support for it,” Chopp said. “The cost of living is just not as high in other parts of the state as it is in Seattle.”
Perhaps Capitol Hill’s biggest disappointment with Olympia came earlier this year when the legislators once again failed to pass a transportation package, sending county and city officials scrambling to prevent deep cuts to Metro bus service. Lamenting Republican opposition, Chopp said the best option for Seattle is for voters to approve Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $60 car tab and sales tax hike in November. In the meantime, Chopp said he would continue to work towards implementing a 1.5% vehicle excise tax to sustain transit funding around the city.
After two decades in the Legislature, it’s clear Chopp has developed a passion for process. While his challenger may have more fire in her belly, Chopp said he’s confident in his ability to get things done.
“It’s all about trying to get the most progressive agenda though, but at the same time working with people,” he said.