Rep. Frank Chopp first joined the Washington State Legislature in 1995 and has been Speaker of the House since 2002. He has one of the safest seats in the state, typically garnering 80 percent of the votes each election cycle.
Though viewed by many as a progressive and powerful ally in a divided legislature he faces yet another challenge from an first-time candidate who says he’s not progressive enough.
Climate scientist turned Socialist Alternative activist Jess Spear is challenging Chopp for his seat. Call it the sequel to Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s 2012 race against Chopp.
Spear’s campaign looks like past Socialist Alternative campaigns that put Sawant in city hall and pushed the Seattle City Council to pass a law mandating a future citywide $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Instead of the minimum wage, Spear is pushing for rent control, which is currently illegal in Washington due to a 1981 law.
Spear said she has no intention to mimic Sawant’s trajectory.
“This campaign is about empowering working people,” Spear said. “It’s not just about electing somebody.”
For the past two elections, Chopp’s challenger has come from the left instead of the right. Spear took 20 percent in the primary, morethan most Republicans have been able to get against the reputed stalwart of affordable housing and health care for all.
It’s a signal that Seattle is a twoparty town, and the second party is Socialist Alternative.
“There is a more active and impactful Socialist Alternative organization in Seattle than there is a Republican organization,” said Goldy, or David Goldstein, blogger at horsesass.org. “Republicans are an afterthought here; they’re not players at all.”
It ’s politically smart for the Socialist Alternative Party to run more progressive candidates, even in challenging races against popular legislators such as Chopp, said Matt Barreto, a Univerisity of Washington political science professor. A candidate can push established politicians further to the left.
He noted that Sawant forced the city to consider a $15-an-hour minimum wage with her campaign. It became an issue that mayoral candidates Ed Murray and Mike McGinn jumped on before the 2013 election was over.
“Even if Sawant lost, that issue would have been on the table,” Barreto said.
Win or lose, Spear is able to change the conversation. Chopp has said on the campaign trail that he’s in favor of rent control, though he does not think it is likely to change with a split legislature.
Spear: Out to topple the establishment
Spear grew up with a working class background, and she watched her dad, who painted cars at an auto body shop, and her mom, a travel agent, struggle over money.
She came to Seattle in 2011, working as a climate scientist. She worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for three years and the Burke Museum as a micropaleontologist, using microscopic fossils as indicators for climate change.
Springboarding off the energy of Occupy Seattle, Spear threw herself into activism full-time.
“When I met with Socialist Alternative members, it wasn’t just meeting people that agreed with me that the world was messed up and needed to be changed. It was also a perspective of how we could do that,” she said.
In 2012 she worked as a campaign manager in Sawant’s race against Chopp. She took a leave of absence from her job at the Burke Museum in 2013 to focus on Socialist Alternative campaigns, to serve as a volunteer coordinator for Sawant’s successful race against former Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. Later she was organizing director for 15 Now, the $15-an-hour minimum wage organization with a national presence in several U.S. cities.
In her race against Chopp, Spear has positioned herself as a candidate tapped into the needs of working and low-income people. She organized a coalition that protested the lack of regulations for oil trains moving through Seattle, which resulted in a 2,000-person protest in September. She was an ally at protests against foreclosures, as well as protests against Seattle Housing Authority’s proposal to incrementally increase tenants’ rent over several years.
She attended the city council’s first budget hearing where she asked the city to increase funding for human services.
Spear said Chopp is too embedded in corporate politics, having received funding from The Boeing Company PAC, a political action committee, and Vulcan. She said as Speaker of theHouse he has enough power to push a truly progressive agenda.
“We have to recognize that the establishment politicians like Frank Chopp that have been in office for 20 years, they have this thin veneer of progressivism, but at their very core they accept the limitations of the system we’re living under,” Spear said. “That means the solutions they’re going to put forward are going to be narrow, and they’re going to continue asking us to wait while we suffer.”
Chopp: In the driver’s seat
Chopp’s political career started in a way similar to Spear’s. In 1974, when he was a University of Washington student, he organized low income people to fight for housing and shelter.
Most famously, Chopp built and lived in a geodesic dome in South Lake Union to protest the demolition of low-income housing.
Today, he’s still building housing in South Lake Union, but indirectly, through favorable legislation and state budgets. Chopp has advocated for years to finance the Housing Trust Fund, a revolving pool of money that helps nonprofits build affordable housing statewide.
Standing in South Lake Union on the same block where he built his geodesic dome, Chopp pointed to nearby apartment buildings that were subsidized by the Housing Trust Fund.
As speaker, Chopp described himself as working behind the scenes, negotiating between the Democratic controlled house and the Republican controlled Senate.
“I get stuff done, and we all work together, and we all share the credit, but I’m the one who’s driving the agenda on so many issues that make a difference: Health care for all, low income housing, great investments in mental health, defending of the safety net like Disability Lifeline and countless other efforts,” Chopp said. “I’m really proud of my record.”
Chopp played a role in establishing several nonprofits working on housing and human services around Seattle, including the Seattle Human Services Coal ition and the Low-Income Housing Institute.
Tony Lee, a lobbyist for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, worked with him in the early 1980s on grassroots campaigns on homelessness and establishing the city’s first housing levy.
Lee sees Chopp as a keen political strategist who used what few political chips he had to save housing and human service programs.
“Everyone knows Frank [Chopp] has been an absolute leader in Olympia in increasing money for the Housing Trust Fund and preserving money for the Housing Trust Fund when it was under attack,” Lee said.
Chopp defended his record, including a recent vote giving Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks to keep the company in the state.
Labor groups supported the break, he said. As for his campaign contributions, he said he takes donations from many corporations and donates them to other candidates.
Chopp noted that his progressive agenda in the House has been quashed by a conservative Senate.
For example, the House voted to close tax loopholes to pay for education, approved paid safe and sick leave for workers and passed dozens of other progressive laws that were killed or reduced in the Senate.