After more years as House speaker than anyone else in state history, Rep. Frank Chopp has decided to give up the gavel, although not his seat in the urban Seattle district that has sent him to Olympia every two years since 1994.
This is a shock to the natural order of things that reporters at the Capitol have come to expect, because Chopp has been speaker longer than any of the current press corps have been here. That’s not as momentous a statement as it once might have been, because the press corps has dwindled to the point where we could hold meetings in a phone booth, if one could be found within reasonable proximity to the building.
Senate majorities – and with it, Senate leadership – have moved back and forth between parties in the 16 years Chopp has been speaker. But House Democrats have held on, sometimes by large margins and most recently by just a couple of seats, since 2002, and he was co-speaker for three years before that, when the chamber split 49 all.
During the session, Chopp often dispatches lieutenants to field questions at news conferences, and spends much of the time in his office where a constant stream of legislators and staff comes and goes. It’s not that he never talks to reporters – I once had an interesting conversation about the best way to season and cook lamb for an upcoming Easter dinner and another about aircraft carriers, because his father used to build them and mine served on one. But when negotiations are ongoing or issues are about to boil over, he can make himself scarce. He also has an uncanny ability to move with remarkable speed from one spot to another and avoid reporters poised to ask him questions he’d rather not answer.
The day after announcing 2019 will be his last as speaker, however, Chopp sat down with reporters to talk about his decision, his tenure, the coming session and beyond.
He wants to concentrate on a few key issues, like improved mental health, increased financial aid for college students and more affordable housing. The last has been a passion of his since before coming to the Legislature, and he’s supported many types of projects to increase affordable housing in the state.
Despite those projects, the state is struggling with record numbers of homeless people, he acknowledged, and not just in Western Washington.
“We need to identify models of housing that are far less expensive than the apartment buildings that are built,” he said.
He envisions units even smaller than the “tiny house” developments, offering just the basics of shelter – utilities, heat, a toilet, a shower, a roof. “If you’re homeless for any number of reasons … what would you need in order to move forward?” he asked.
The House might consider a capital gains tax next year, he said. It will set up an independent office to investigate complaints of sexual harassment, a place that “is not part of management.”
In 2020 and beyond – he says he’ll run for re-election in two years – he wants to spend more time on policy and less time in meetings.
He hopes part of his legacy will be an oft-stated theme of “working together for one Washington,” an attempt to overcome the divide in the state that sees Democrats concentrated west of the Cascades and Republicans to the east. After this fall’s election, that divide is about as great as it has ever been, with only one legislative district in Eastern Washington – central Spokane’s 3rd District – with any Democrats, and only one Republican representing a district that contains a piece of King County.
So how does he propose to bring that together into One Washington?
“First of all, go out and meet people and listen,” he said. “I’ve been on countless ag tours around the state and the first thing you do is listen.”
He recalled a Farm Bureau-sponsored meeting in Ellensburg to talk ag issues, including water and taxes. One of the farmers walked him out to the car and said all that stuff was great but “what we really need is more funding for early learning.” Looking beyond an individual’s situation like that was inspirational, he said.
It’s hard to say whether that anecdote is a good example of how Eastern Washington and Western Washington have shared values, or a good example that West Side legislators need regular reminding that the two sides have shared values.
While Chopp comes from about as urban a district as exists in Washington, his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, is a farmer near Yelm. Wilcox had nothing but praise for Chopp, calling him and former Gov. Dan Evans “the two greatest political minds in our state” who always kept a statewide point of view and always tried to be fair.
This doesn’t mean Wilcox and other House Republicans won’t be grumbling in the coming months about Chopp not letting some of their favored bills get a floor vote. But that’s par for any opposition to any speaker in any session.
Lesser political minds might wonder about Chopp’s decision to announce before the session starts that it will be his last as speaker, possibly lessening his clout and setting off a race for a replacement.
“It’s good to make the transition,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will think that I’m a lame duck.”
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