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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Speaking about Speaker Chopp

posted by on April 19 at 16:10 PM

David Postman has a critique of the Chopp story I published in the Stranger last week.

Postman’s got two basic points. 1) You can’t blame Speaker Chopp for all the progressive bills that got iced this session.

(My story reports that the Dem leadership in Olympia has gutted, tabled or thwarted a number of no-brainer legislative items this session: comprehensive family leave, a cap on payday-loan interest rates, a bill closing the gun-show loophole, a bill to keep tabs on corporate tax breaks by including those de facto expenditures in the budget, legislation preventing employers from holding “captive audience” anti-unionizing meetings, regulations requiring disclosure from pharmaceutical-industry lobbyists, an overall cap on CO2 emissions, tenant relocation assistance and a cap on condo conversions, legislation preventing strip-mining operations on Maury Island, protecting student free-speech rights, a homebuyers’ protection bill, full funding for health-care workers in nursing homes, and a cool follow-up to the infamous $3.2 billion tax break Boeing got in 2003, making the money contingent on a requirement that the company doesn’t engage in union busting.)

And #2, Postman says I actually didn’t get a lot of people to specifically criticize Chopp on the record.

Let’s start with Postman’s first point. Well, he’s right that Chopp isn’t to blame for everything on my list. For example, it was the Senate that nuked one of my favorite bills this session, the student press bill, which passed Chopp’s House. Additionally, Chopp has to play ball with his caucus. He can’t just ignore stubborn committee chairs nor the politics within his caucus.

(Although, as I did point out in my article, Chopp can control the landscape. He had longtime House Finance Chair, Rep. Jim McIntire, ousted because he didn’t agree with McIntire on tax reform. He also moved a tax break bill through committee even though he saw it didn’t have the votes. This is evidence that Chopp, obviously, has more power than most and should be held accountable for that extra power.

Still, Postman’s right that Chopp can’t be blamed for all the disappointments on the liberal side. And granted, that is what my headline said. Headlines though, as Postman well knows, are often beyond the control of the writer, and so, I’ll admit I wasn’t 100% happy with the headline. That said, I’m not backing away from the premise of the story, which is that Chopp remains weirdly risk averse when it comes to pushing a progressive agenda even though he has a commanding majority, and he has a unique and disproportionate amount of power within that super majority.

And so: He should also be held disproportionately accountable.

He’s the Speaker of the House. He sets priorities. It is not unreasonable to lay the failures (as progressives see them) at the feet of the leader—especially a leader who’s elected from the Dennis Kucinich 43rd. If Chopp can prioritize a tax break by yanking it out of a hostile committee, he can prioritize things like the pay day loans cap and yank them out of hostile committees? My story points out that he didn’t.

My story also points out that Chopp was on the receiving end of serious donations from the pay day loan industry, the building industry (with a targeted lobbying dinner too), and the Maury Island strip mining company, Glacier NW.

Postman’s second point is that I really didn’t have tons of people laying the blame on Chopp, specifically. (This critique grew out of a piece Public Radio reporter Austin Jenkins did where Jenkins reported how hard it is to get people to go on record criticizing Chopp. Jenkins went on to rehash an old story on Chopp’s centrist philosophy, which we all covered at the beginning of the session: the Dems made a lot of pick-ups in suburban swing districts in the 2006 landslide and didn’t want to “overreach” and lose those tentative seats. Leaders like Chopp believe that’s the blunder they made in 1994.)

Anyhow, Savage did a post yesterday showing that in fact, I had gotten several people to go on record about Chopp. Postman challenges that contention.

Postman explains that my quotes from SEIU leader David Rolf, who complained to me about the Dems failure to address corporate welfare, are not specifically directed at Chopp. True. However, look at Rolf's quote. He directly criticizes the failure of the Dem controlled legislature (going back to 2001 when Chopp took over as Speaker of the House) to address the issue.

And indeed, in the article, I pick up on SEIU's critique of "leadership" by identifying a specific instance where Chopp went to bat for some dubious corporate welfare—over the objections of his caucus. (I wonder where I got that example.) I also cite two others that sailed through at the urging of Chopp's "One Washington" ally, Rep. Bill Grant, the caucus chairman, and the only House D from rural Eastern Washington.

Additionally, I reported:

A bill that would have tracked these corporate tax breaks had 17 co-sponsors, including lead sponsor Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37, South Seattle). Santos’ bill was passed out of the Finance Committee to the Rules Committee, but leadership yanked it from Rules and sent it back to Finance, where it’s now wasting away.

What I didn't report in my story, but perhaps should have, was that the Tax Fairness Coalition, the group that pushed that bill, met with Chopp at the beginning of the session to push their agenda, and that piece of legislation was discussed.

Postman criticizes another one of my sources, Christy Margelli of the Tax Fairness Coalition, saying her point was inaccurate. In my story, Margelli criticized Dem leadership for considering saving Tim Eyman's I-747. And she actually named Chopp, criticizing him for not looking at more progressive property tax reform, saying" "Maybe Chopp thinks that being too bold to quickly out of the gate would threaten what he's built ... maybe he has big plans for next year..." That quote, because it was tied to a pretty wonky discussion of tax reform, was edited out of my story.

Anyway, Postman says she's wrong that reviving Eyman's I-747 counts as a Dem failure. They discussed it in caucus, he reports, and adds, correctly, killed it. He also reports that there was no evidence that Chopp supported reviving it. I'm not so sure. I talked to Chopp about this issue twice during the session, and he basically said his members were concerned about property taxes, and he wanted to hear them out. Soooo, despite the fact that it died in committee, it was kept alive in caucus. Postman attributes this to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-31, Eunumclaw). Okay. But leadership controls the agenda in caucus, so the ball bounces back into Chopp's court. Additionally, you have to wonder why more progressive property tax solutions—like tacking increases to income—weren't pushed. If one member like Rep. Hurst, not a chair on any committee that deals with tax reform, can push an Eyman solution on Chopp, why can't a liberal like Speaker Chopp push ideas like income tests. Leadership can move tax reform agendas, no?

On that score, Postman second guesses the premise of my article by saying Chopp has never claimed to be a progressive crusader. This is way off base. First of all, when I told Chopp I was working on a story that dealt with criticism in progressive circles that the Dems were wasting their majority, he went through the roof, lecturing me without taking a breath on his strong commitment to progressive values. Indeed, (and Postman knows this), Chopp's "One Washington Mantra" is (recite it with me Postman: "Our theme as House Democrats is working together for one Washington building a constructive majority to enact a progressive agenda." Chopp repeatedly and consciously uses the word "progressive." And again, he backs that up by laying claim, rightfully, to all sorts of progressive items he's championed—like ensuring bargaining rights, spiking the state's minimum wage, and creating a housing trust fund, Indeed, my article walks through this list and more, as well as pointing out Chopp's history working to serve poor people. Thus the disappointment in this session.

Postman also questions the significance of the quotes I got on record from House Caucus members. Although, he only cites one, Rep. Maralyn Chase (D-32, Shoreline) and doesn't cite the entire quote. He leaves out this line: "His social justice roots are deep. But he brings that down here and runs into a problem of balancing competing interests among members." That's not necessarily a big dis on Chopp, but—coming from one of the caucus' more liberal members—who had her CO2 cap bill ignored by leadership in this the year of Global Warming (hello???)—I believe she's asking readers to read between the lines. Indeed, it's risky business talking about the Speaker. Although, people are willing to do it. Anyway, Rep. Chase's point is: Chopp allows competing interests to water down his liberal goals. Again, that may very well be the job of the Speaker, but it's also a reality that my article reflected on and charted the implications of.

Additionally, Postman outright ignores another on-the-record quote in my article from Rep. Jim McIntire, the one who lost the Finance Chairmanship. Rep. McIntire told me: "It was pretty clear that Frank did not like the fact that I was out there talking about income taxes."

Postman also points out that a lot of people have good things to say about Chopp. That's true. And several of them show up in my article.

Ultimately, the fact that it's hard to get people to criticize Chopp on record speaks to the very premise of my article: He's a powerful man. It's sorta weird then for other journalists in town to rush to Chopp's defense by saying the disappointing session isn't all Chopp's fault. Part of their proof that it's not all his fault? People won't directly criticize Chopp. Hmmm... I wonder why they won't criticize Chopp (on record). Maybe it's because he's the most powerful Democrat in the state (along with Gov. Gregoire and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane.) And that brings us right to my point.

RSS icon Comments


The most striking thing about your original article was just how much power Chopp does have. Is the Speaker's power codified in WA state law, or does his power derive from good old fashioned reputation and politics?

Anyway, the current democratic majority is about disillusionment with Bush, just as 1994 was about hatred of Clinton. Neither has anything to do with Chopp.

Posted by Sean | April 19, 2007 4:21 PM

One gets power by using it wisely, and not using it in situations where it will backlash without progressing in a forward direction.

Frank is a master at this. Which is why we love him.

And he knows how to surf the wave.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 19, 2007 5:27 PM

Postman remains standing. Feit lost the smackdown.

Posted by Give it up, Josh | April 19, 2007 5:28 PM

I disagree. It's as if Postman didn't read Josh's story.

Posted by EXTC | April 19, 2007 5:30 PM

I read Postman's story and here's what I think:

Right off the bat, he states that Chopp has immense power these days. Well, that immense power reaches into the furthest corners of the state's Democratic party. Nothing passes in the legislature without Chopp's blessing, and Chopp can get a bill moving in either house. So critiques of the party are legitimate criticisms of Chopp. Postman knows this.

Although the Dems have been lily-livered for years, that's no excuse for Chopp today. This session, he has failed to seize a super majority -- handed to the party mostly by circumstance of national politics -- and pass progressive legislation in what may be a brief window before the majority shrinks. The excuses for Chopp are: a) he isn't really the progressive candidate he portrays to his constituents in the 43rd District; b) he isn't the leader the state Democrats need; or c) both. Regardless, Chopp is polishing his sword when he should be leading his army. I'm willing to compromise for the team but I'm not willing to elect a captain who's afraid to play ball.

Postman mentions that he can't get a call returned from Chopp, though. That's gotta hurt. Maybe, just maybe, if he writes a flattering defense of Chopp, he'll get calls returned next session...

Posted by House Party | April 19, 2007 5:46 PM

Here's something I find scary. Look at who Chopp picked as House Transportation Chair to replace Ed Murray. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island. What the heck is Judy Clibborn's distinguished record when it comes to transportation? Please, someone tell me.

But check this from this story in today's Times about legislative leaders second-guessing the Sound Transit 2/RTID ballot: "Clibborn said she'd like to see the Sound Transit light-rail portion of the ballot measure scaled back and the roads portion redone so that more money goes into projects such as Highway 167 and, in particular, Highway 520."

Yeah, Frank Chopp's hand-picked transportation committee chair wants less rail money and more roads money. To me, Judy Clibborn's getting that plum seat is a classic case where you have to ask, "What does the Democratic caucaus really gain by making a status quo roads-first person your top transportation legislator?"

All she's doing now is meddling in a regional light-rail project paid for with regional money, voted on by regional voters, and which is popular in the region. It's not like we're asking state taxpayers to pay for light rail. BTW, Link light rail is supposedly the only light rail project in the country that hasn't received any state money.

Posted by cressona | April 19, 2007 6:00 PM

Run, Josh, run!
Then you could quote yourself quoting yourself. And get bonus points for mentioning jazz, basketball, and your other stret cred credentials.

(Postman clocked you.)

Posted by Bring back Walter Cronkhite | April 19, 2007 6:48 PM

You know, the gun show loophole bill started in the Senate and it didn't have the votes there. It made it out of committee, yet no one pulled it in Rules. Maybe, we should pile on Sen. Lisa Brown for her failure to push her caucus.

People know Marilyn Chase is crazy right?

At the end of the day, the most important bill yet to be passed is the budget. The House budget was considerably better than the budgets produced by the Senate or the Governor. On all fronts - education, health care, human services and the like the House did better.

So lets wait and see what's in the conference budget.

Posted by Only Three | April 19, 2007 6:49 PM


You're like a dog chasing after a parked car. Give it a rest. I thought when you were sent down to Oly that you were going to do a bang up job but all you seem to down is show you have the Ruderman syndrome (can't play well with others). Come on back to Seattle and cover City Hall. That seems to be more your speed. Oh and Postman did give you a journalistic bitch slap.

Posted by The Hateration Continues | April 19, 2007 10:48 PM

Josh's Chopp story rocks. Josh's anonymous critics suck.

Posted by J.R. | April 20, 2007 4:04 PM

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