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Sunday, July 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chopp melds strategy, clout as he leads battle for House

Seattle Times staff reporter

House Speaker Frank Chopp occupies his customary spot at a Tully's Coffee in Wallingford, a back-room table laden with documents and empty cups. He's deep in a council of war regarding the November election.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, gives him intelligence on Eastside races: who's running, who's not, who might be interested. She's one of a string of politicians who swing by on this afternoon.

Chopp asks rapid-fire questions, scribbles notes constantly and erupts regularly. "Whoever runs against him, it's going to be nuclear war," he roars about an upcoming race.

If politics is a battle, Chopp, 53, is commander-in-chief when it comes to electing Democrats to the state House. He channels money and manpower to key races. He figures out overall strategy. As candidates prepare to file for office this week, it's Chopp who often decides who runs and who doesn't.

Democrats in recent years have been winning the fight against Republicans. The party has picked up 14 seats since 1998, when Chopp took over as Democratic leader. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the House 56-42.

Rep. Mike Armstrong, deputy Republican leader in the House, contends some of that gain is cyclical. "The pendulum swings both directions," he says. "At some point it will swing back toward us."

Frank Chopp


Age: 53

Hometown: Reared in Bremerton; lives in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle.

Education: Bachelor's degree from the University of Washington in 1975.

Work experience: Executive director of the Fremont Public Association, from 1983 to 2000. Currently president emeritus of the group, one of the state's largest and most powerful social-service nonprofits.

Political experience: Elected to the state House in 1994; became leader of the House Democratic Caucus in 1998. Became co-speaker of the House in 1999, when Democrats and Republicans tied for control, and House speaker after his party won control in 2001.

Yet he acknowledges Chopp has "done a good job for his caucus in getting them in the majority and keeping them in the majority."

Many Democrats — and some Republicans — consider Chopp the driving force behind his party regaining control of the House five years ago and strengthening its hold since. Analysts say Democrats have a good shot at picking up more seats in this fall's election.

Chopp's style can be brusque, and his decisions can perturb even supporters. The Washington State Labor Council, for instance, is troubled by his courting of the business community.

Still, Chopp's stature has grown with his majority. He wields political clout arguably second only to the governor. He has built a coalition that includes traditional allies such as labor, teachers and environmentalists. And he has picked up surprising support deep in GOP territory.

"I'd like to see Frank Chopp run for governor," says Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, which has spent millions of dollars supporting conservative causes and Republican candidates. "I have a great deal of respect for him."

McCabe and others attribute Chopp's success to his ability to restrain the left wing of his party, pick strong candidates, raise money and protect incumbents against GOP challengers.

Chopp gets nervous when people praise his accomplishments or predict an even bigger Democratic majority.

Yet he's unapologetic for wanting to win as many seats as possible. Chopp says he has an ambitious agenda, including health care for every child in the state. "I can't achieve that unless I've got political muscle," he says.

"A good heart"

At a glance, Chopp doesn't seem like a mover and shaker. He looks more middle-aged businessman — button-down, clean shaven, graying.

That impression doesn't last long. He's intense, full of nervous energy, his hands in constant motion. When worked up, which is frequent, he can let loose a stream of profanity.

Chopp used to have a note from his daughter taped up in his Olympia office: "Dad, remember not to swear."

He doesn't need the iced coffee he's sucking down at Tully's, a sort of informal office where he often meets with people near his Wallingford home.

Today, Chopp is grilling Democrats who drop by to talk about their campaigns and others in their districts. He drinks in reports about candidates going door-to-door and how voters react.

He rattles off names of candidates, their districts, and the demographics of their communities from memory.

Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, who has worked with Chopp more than a decade, says he has an "incredible ability to retain a lot of complex information."

Which means he has a tendency to be involved in everything. "Sometimes it's good, and sometimes people don't like it," Sommers says.

For all his bark, Chopp is known for choking up when talking about his mother or an issue he cares deeply about. "Frank has a good heart," says Rep. Ed Murray, Chopp's Democratic seatmate in District 43.

Chopp's political résumé dates to his teens.

As a student at Bremerton High School, he led a protest against the annual Elks Club student citizenship awards to oppose the club's policy at the time of not allowing blacks.

In college, he organized efforts to preserve low-income housing near downtown Seattle. Later, as executive director of the nonprofit Fremont Public Association, he packed City Hall with supporters of government aid for the poor.

Chopp took his organizing skills to the Legislature in 1994 and quickly rose through the ranks. He became House Democratic leader in 1998, after two terms in office.

Before taking over, Chopp typed a 15-page plan that laid out his strategy to reclaim the House majority. When he wrote the document, Republicans held a 56-42 lead in the House.

Eight years later, the numbers are reversed. Chopp says he never refers to the detailed document. "It's all up here," he says, tapping his head.

The kingmaker

Chopp can make or break a candidate's bid for office.

He showed that this year in Clark County, where he overruled the local party choice and picked a different candidate to run against Republican Rep. Jim Dunn of Vancouver.

The Democratic county party chairman, Chris Bassett, resigned in protest.

"The speaker has complete candidate-selection authority, to put it mildly," Bassett says. "I don't think that's maybe well-known. Shame on me for being such a neophyte at the game and not quite understanding."

Chopp says he looks for people who have established a name for themselves. School boards and city councils are favorite poaching grounds.

He persuades Democratic House members and community leaders to help find candidates. But he does recruiting, too, for people such as Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor, a retired Navy captain and former commander of the battleship USS Iowa.

Seaquist, running for an open seat in District 26, says he was "really hesitant" to run until he met Chopp. "If you're talking to the speaker and understand who he is and what his agenda is, that will make a huge difference."

But good credentials aren't enough. Chopp also digs for skeletons and invariably asks potential candidates if they've done anything that could pose a problem in a campaign.

He pops the question at the Tully's in Wallingford to Stephanie Pure, a candidate for an open House seat in District 43, adding: "You haven't murdered anybody, have you?"

He's only half-joking. Chopp tells Pure, who says she's clean, that he interviewed a candidate not long ago who told him, "There was a woman dead next to me when I woke up one morning."

Chopp's reaction: "I don't think you're going to run."

Republican Rep. Fred Jarrett, of Mercer Island, says he has watched how Chopp finds candidates. In fact, Jarrett has tried without success to recruit some of the same people as Chopp.

"His sales pitch is that he's trying to create a new Democratic Party and he's looking for a centrist new majority and he's looking for people he can get into the caucus who will support that approach," Jarrett says.

Raising cash

Chopp throws money and manpower behind the people he picks to run in key races.

The amount of money spent by political-action committees affiliated with the House Democratic caucus tripled between 1998, when Chopp took over, and 2003-04, the most recent election cycle for which complete records are available.

A big chunk of the Democrats' money is surplus donations raised by incumbents in safe districts.

When Chopp became Democratic leader, "he went through and told everybody their goal of what we were supposed to raise," says Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle. "That's when we started surplusing. There hadn't been any real organized effort to get us to surplus until then."

Cody raised more than $24,000 that she didn't need in the past campaign cycle, money that went to help new candidates and protect incumbents.

The House Democratic caucus as a whole contributed $815,000 in the 2003-2004 election cycle.

Chopp works equally hard to re-elect Democrats. One tactic: Make sure that lawmakers in vulnerable districts have their names on important bills.

"I've never sponsored a bill that actually passed the Legislature," Chopp says. "I've gotten a lot of stuff done. It just doesn't have my name on it."

Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla, the House's lone Democrat from rural Eastern Washington, is a good example. Grant, expected to be a GOP target this year, sponsored agricultural tax breaks and other major legislation this past session.

"If we're going to do those things, we might as well put his name on them," says Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. "He's a good guy. It would be a shame for those folks to lose him. It would be a shame for us to lose him in the Legislature."

Cracks in coalition?

Despite Chopp's success, there are signs of strain in the coalition that has helped bring him this far.

He angered the Washington State Labor Council, a major supporter of his party, when he didn't advance so-called "fair-share" legislation aimed at forcing Wal-Mart to spend more on workers' health care.

"One of the main reasons he didn't want to go forward with that was he felt it would bring money from the business community against us," says Cody, chairwoman of the House Health Care Committee.

The Labor Council, however, was troubled enough that it hesitated to endorse Chopp for the upcoming election until he turned in a candidate questionnaire. One question asked about fair-share legislation.

Chopp completed the questionnaire and promised to work on the "fair-share" issue next session, the Labor Council said. The group endorsed him.

Rick Bender, Labor Council president, says he's worried about House Democrats reaching out to business.

"If you take a look at contribution levels," Bender says, "the Democratic caucus now is almost getting as much from business as it is from labor. That concerns us. It tends to cause House Democrats to compromise more than we think they should."

Democratic Party officials say the House caucus receives about 30 percent of its overall PAC contributions from business and 40 percent from labor.

Paul Berendt, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has known Chopp for years, says he's not worried about where Chopp is leading his caucus.

"Frank Chopp has the heart of a real Democrat," he says.

"Early in Frank's speakership I'd worry about him and think, 'Oh, wow, some of his actions are upsetting his members and how is he going to be able to withstand it,' " Berendt says.

But Chopp's victories have enhanced his power, Berendt says. "People have grown to respect him and understand that he means business.

"They have grown to think that maybe you shouldn't cross Frank."

Andrew Garber: agarber@seattletimes.com or 360-236-8268

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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