As one of the most formidable politicians in Olympia, House Speaker Frank Chopp typically hasn’t faced much of a challenge getting re-elected in Seattle’s predictably Democratic 43rd Legislative District.
First elected in 1994, Chopp is seeking an 11th term this fall. He’s already the longest-serving House speaker in state history, having held or shared the post since 1999. He has often run unopposed or faced only token opposition.
But this year the 43rd District’s other major political party is trying to give Chopp a reason to sweat.
It’s not the Republicans — who fielded no candidates in the 43rd — but Socialist Alternative, the leftist party that rattled the establishment with the election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council last year.
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Jess Spear, a Sawant ally who campaigned for Seattle’s $15 minimum wage as organizing director of 15 Now, is seeking to topple Chopp.
Her campaign will test whether Sawant’s defeat of longtime City Councilmember Richard Conlin last year was a fluke or the dawn of a new political order in the city.
Sawant drew some of her strongest support in the 43rd District last year.
Both Chopp and Spear will advance to the November election, but an early test will come when votes are counted in the Aug. 5 primary.
Spear’s campaign is aimed at the liberal id of the 43rd, arguing Chopp hasn’t used the Democrats’ House majority to advance progressive causes, such as rent control, while approving record-setting tax breaks for Boeing.
Spear brushes aside arguments that the 43rd District would lose clout if it dumped Chopp in favor of an avowed socialist.
“We have lots of people down there that are representing the likes of Boeing,” Spear said. “What we don’t have is a voice that will unambiguously demand what working people need.”
This isn’t the first time Chopp has faced a socialist opponent. In 2012, Sawant ran against him, but received only 29 percent of the vote.
Spear and her supporters hope this time will be different.
They cite Sawant’s victory last year, followed by the rapid passage of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage — seemingly unthinkable only a year earlier — as evidence that Seattle voters are impatient with status quo politics.
If Conlin’s defeat was a wake-up call, a Chopp loss would be a cataclysm for Seattle Democrats.
Spear, 32, is a relative newcomer to the city and local politics. She moved to Seattle three years ago and worked as a climate scientist, studying microfossils at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture before taking leave to run Sawant’s 2012 campaign.
Chopp, 61, has been a force in Seattle politics for decades, even before his election to the Legislature. The grandson of Croatian immigrants, he grew up in Bremerton and has been an anti-poverty activist in Seattle since the 1970s.
Before elected office, his jobs included a stint as executive director of Solid Ground, the major social-services nonprofit organization, formerly known as the Fremont Public Association. He still works part time for the group.
Chopp describes himself as a community organizer “who just happens to be speaker.”
In an interview last week, Chopp seemed irritated by some of Spear’s criticisms. He pointed to her comment in a Seattle Weekly article, in which she asked, “What has he (Chopp) delivered for working people?”
After reading that, Chopp says he sat down and typed a partial list of his achievements, from personally organizing two unions, to boosting unemployment-insurance benefits and helping lead a successful 1998 initiative campaign that raised the state minimum wage.
“Obviously, she doesn’t know what I have done,” Chopp said, handing the list to a reporter.
Chopp says voters may be unaware of his accomplishments because he doesn’t like to promote himself in news releases, preferring to operate behind the scenes. “You can get a lot more done if you work with everybody and you give everybody a lot of credit,” he said.
Over the past two years, Chopp said, many of his caucus’s priorities — including a paid sick-leave law and efforts to close some tax loopholes — have been blocked by the more conservative state Senate.
One of Spear’s biggest complaints is Chopp’s support of the $8.7 billion tax-break package approved by lawmakers last fall to guarantee Boeing would build its new 777X in the state.
Spear says she would have called Boeing on its “bluff.” If the company did move operations out of the state, she argued, the state could seize its facilities here.
“We have the right to take over those factories, take them into the public domain and run them for public good — continue to keep those workers hired and produce things the local economy needs,” Spear said, a suggestion similar to one made by Sawant, who has said the factories could produce buses for mass transit.
But Chopp said the Legislature made the only pragmatic choice, agreeing to the tax breaks to keep manufacturing jobs here. He pointed to letters of support from the Machinists and state employees unions.
“I did it for the workers, because we needed to protect their jobs,” Chopp said.
Chopp said he’s taking the Spear challenge seriously.
He’s lined up early endorsements from labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal stalwarts. He was out doorbelling with volunteers on Capitol Hill last weekend — sooner than he usually does.
Some say he’s right to be concerned. Roger Valdez, director with the developer-funded group Smart Growth Seattle, watches local politics closely and has been telling friends Chopp could lose.
“I think a lot of people were asleep at the switch a year ago,” said Valdez, referring to Sawant’s surprise win over Conlin. “The question is, does Spear translate to the same people who voted for Sawant? Or have people had their fill?”
Even if Spear doesn’t win, Valdez said, she may pressure Chopp to push a more liberal agenda on issues like rent control.
Chopp said he backs lifting the state ban on local rent-control ordinances, but noted the state pre-emption was created by the Legislature as a backlash after a failed Seattle rent-control initiative.
Spear will face big obstacles. She’s raised just $12,000 compared with $113,000 for Chopp, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Spear said her goal is to raise $150,000, but that she’ll refuse corporate donations.
Despite its success in electing Sawant, Socialist Alternative remains a small party, with only about 100 active members in the city. But the group has sought to reach out to Democrats and others who agree with them on issues such as income inequality.
If elected, Spear would be the first socialist in the Legislature since 1913, when there were two, according to the state House Clerk’s office.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner