House Speaker Frank Chopp bristles when observers refer to his operation in Olympia as a political machine. In fact, he hates it. He sees "machine" as a pejorative term that conjures backslapping and backroom deals, donors and dollar signs.
"But people say, 'Frank, it's a compliment,'" Chopp says, his stern countenance slowly softening to a smile over coffee a few blocks from his day job at the human services charity Solid Ground (formerly the Fremont Public Association). "They can call it whatever they want to. I just want to keep winning."
In reality, Chopp's well-oiled operation isn't just a machine—it's a bulldozer.
Just 12 years after the landslide election that sent them deep into the minority, Democrats in 2006 picked up seven seats to extend their majority to a 62-36 margin. And they appear to be poised to make more gains in 2008: 15 months out from the next legislative elections, the House Democratic Campaign Committee (which gives hard dollars directly to candidates) has raised more than $450,000—10 times what the House Republican Organizing Committee has in the bank.
But Chopp is quick to point out that money isn't everything. He says the House Democrats have a four-part strategy: Put forth a positive agenda full of "kitchen-table issues," recruit high-quality candidates, carefully track district demographics, and back all that up with a fully functioning, year-round campaign committee.
To this end, Chopp says he hasn't sat still but a couple of days since the Legislature adjourned in April. "I have a policy," he says. "When you have things going your way, you keep going full bore."
Indeed. On his list of off-session projects: launching the Legislature-approved program to expand health care coverage for children in low-income families, studying the funding formula for school construction, and figuring out how to make the best use of the money awarded to programs for the poor.
On the campaign front, Chopp regularly scours the state for potential new candidates. He says the caucus committee separates House seats into roughly three categories: defend, protect, and pick up. But they're not just focused on 2008. Chopp's got a separate chart that tracks the potential for Democratic retirements through 2012. "We already have people on deck to run in the next three election cycles," he says. The speaker likens majority building to a giant jigsaw puzzle. "You've got to find the right pieces to put together," he says.
Our hour-and-a-half conversation—sandwiched between a strategy session with advisors and a recruiting pitch to a potential 2008 candidate—is a rare one. Chopp all but shunned the press midway through the legislative session after an off-handed—and inaccurate—comment about NASCAR legend Richard Petty's drunk-driving record. And later criticisms that the Democratic supermajority wasn't doing enough to advance progressive policy didn't discourage Chopp's reclusive tendencies, either.
"I'm thin-skinned," Chopp says. "I'm also extremely competitive."
Chopp's determination to build a lasting majority began on his first day at the statehouse in 1995. "I had won in a crowded six-person field," he recalls. "I couldn't believe people had voted for me. I was so excited to be elected. I went down there so eager."
But his Democratic colleagues were demoralized. Republicans, riding the wave of national Democratic malaise, had just gained a whopping 29 seats to swell their 33-member minority to a 62-member majority after 12 years in the wilderness.
Chopp, though inexperienced, didn't waste time hatching a plan to win back power. "That summer I started working with a small group of legislators to rebuild the majority," he says. "We've gained and gained, and we've never gone back."
The process has been incremental. Democrats eventually tied the Republicans in 1999, the first year Chopp assumed leadership as co-speaker. At 62-36, the current Democratic margin is the exact flip-flop of the edge Republicans had when Chopp took office 12 years ago.
The House Democratic Campaign Committee has eight Republican incumbents in its sights for 2008. Six of these seats, Chopp says, should be winnable. They include: the 17th District seat now held by Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver; the 10th District seat now held by Rep. Barbara Bailey, R–Whidbey Island; the 30th District seat now held by Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way; the 25th District seat now held by Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup; the 2nd District seat now held by Rep. Jim McCune, R-Graham; and the 41st District seat now held by Fred Jarrett, R-Bellevue.
Chopp says the campaign committee already has "good candidates" for three of those six seats, though they haven't declared their intentions publicly. When it comes to recruiting, Chopp says he averages about two one-on-one meetings a week—and that he's not averse to begging.
"I came from a nonprofit," he says. "I'm used to that."
Democrats and Republicans alike credit Chopp for the strength of his party's current dominance in Olympia. "Chopp's the man," says Brian Ebersole, who served in the statehouse from 1983 to 1994 and was the last Democrat to be speaker before Chopp. "I think he's the most dominant figure in the Legislature in modern history. He works harder than anyone else. He puts in more hours than anyone else and cares more than anyone else about the outcome."
Ebersole remembers in 1996, while he was mayor of Tacoma, hearing that Chopp was in town ringing doorbells for a local state representative in a tough race. "That was only his first term, and already he was helping out," he says, adding that Chopp's role in recruiting candidates today is uncommon for a House speaker and something he was much less involved in when he held the post. If anyone in leadership was out pounding the pavement looking for candidates, it was the majority leader, Ebersole says, adding that "it's unusual for a speaker to show this much tenacity."
"In terms of Olympia, the shadow that hangs over everything is the Frank Chopp machine," echoes former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "They'll have to move all the money to defend vulnerable Republican incumbents. [The Democrats] can ambush Republican incumbents. When you've got that much money, you can bushwhack people."
"They've done a good job of building and protecting their majority," seconds Kevin Carns, political director for the House Republican Organizational Committee. "The numbers don't lie."
But Carns argues that Democratic Party dominance, even in Washington, is cyclical. "National Republican trends have really affected things here," he says. And Carns rejects the notion that the Democrats will bury his party with cash. First, he says, much of the House Democrats' $453,000 is carryover from the 2006 campaign season. (The House Democrats ended 2006 with more than $578,000 in the bank.) Plus, he says, thanks to some recent fund-raisers, the Republicans actually have more than $100,000— but that figure includes PAC dollars. Including PAC dollars as of last month, the Democrats have more than $500,000.
"It's a significant chunk of money, no question," Carns says. "But I disagree that every Republican incumbent has a bulls-eye on their back. We've tried to swing for the fence too often, hit the home run and pick up 12 or 14 seats—but that's just not realistic. Honestly, I'd like to see us pick up four to six seats, and I think it's doable."
Of course, a supermajority means nothing if the party in power doesn't use it to advance its agenda, and the results of the past legislative session were mixed. Lawmakers approved expanded health care coverage for children of the poor, paid leave for parents, extended rights to gay and lesbian couples, and made a down payment on cleaning up Puget Sound. But they failed to pass restrictions on payday loans, criminal background checks for firearms sold at gun shows, warranties for new homeowners, and a cap on condo conversions with relocation assistance for the renters.
Chopp says the condo conversion bill is one of the things he "feels the worst" about not getting done. He says they simply ran out of time. "You need to link up community organizations and grassroots advocacy with legislative activity, and in the case of condos, we didn't make the connection for this session," he explains.
The Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox doesn't buy that excuse. He says it was more about confusion and special interests than lack of time. Still, he says, Chopp shouldn't be blamed for all progressive issues that fell by the wayside.
"Frank blew it on our bill, but he apologized and is working on it and trying to deal with it," Fox says. "Across the range of issues, Frank is a realist. He knows there's only so far he can take the center of the party on these issues. He is aware of the need to build a bigger majority and that comes into his calculus."
Sen. Brian Weinstein, D–Mercer Island, adds that Chopp is cautious to the point of being fearful. "He has a majority. He wants to keep the majority. He wants to move slowly, make sure he doesn't make too many enemies in the business community, insurance community, building community," Weinstein says. "He's happy to do one or two progressive things a year, especially ones that don't make him enemies."
Weinstein's bill to give homeowners basic consumer protections this past session wasn't one of them. "[Chopp] gave in to fear rather than doing the right thing," Weinstein says, but adds that setting the agenda is the speaker's prerogative. "Nothing comes to a vote in the House or passes unless Frank Chopp wants it to. He runs the place the way he wants to run it."