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April 19, 2007

Chopp can't be blamed alone for failure of liberal agenda

Posted by David Postman at 11:41 AM

There's been a lot written about House Speaker Frank Chopp this year. And I've been reading it all very carefully. Chopp hasn't talked to me in months, so I'm just like any other reader trying to learn about how the speaker is using his immense power.

There's no doubt he is the most powerful speaker in recent history. But people can see that power differently. That was real clear to me reading a bit of rant by Stranger editor Dan Savage on The Slog on Wednesday.

Savage ripped up Austin Jenkins for a blog post the public radio reporter wrote for the new Crosscut. Jenkins wrote about how Chopp and Majority Leader Lynn Kessler manage the caucus, and try to protect freshmen "kittens" from having to do too much of anything controversial. Jenkins wrote:

It's difficult to find dissenters in Democratic circles who will openly criticize the Chopp approach as too safe or too middle-of-the-road.

This really set Savage off. He responded by touting a story done last week by The Stranger's Josh Feit about Chopp. He praised Feit for working hard on his story while saying Jenkins "phoned his in."

I think Savage read too much into what his guy wrote. Feit's thesis is that Chopp was stopping progressive legislation and in doing so was ticking off liberals in and out of the Legislature. Savage wrote:

Huh? Josh found plenty of "dissenters in Democratic circles" willing to go on record: folks from the Sierra Club, SEIU, and the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition. Even a Democratic State Senator and a State Rep.

But not really. When I read Feit's story I felt the claim of broad dissent was coming from something of a Potemkin village. When you look close, there is not, in fact, much on-the-record criticism of Chopp. Some of what is mistaken for that is a more general critique of the corporatist nature of Washington Democrats. That's not new, nor is it exclusive to Chopp.

But let's look at the examples of dissenters Savage points to in Feit's piece.

The Sierra Club? Yes, it appears that someone from the Sierra Club was unhappy with Chopp's position on the viaduct. Point to Feit.

The SEIU? Here's what Feit wrote:

"In the fifth or sixth year of Democratic control now," says David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 775, "neither chamber has looked seriously at tax loopholes. We're subsidizing the Realtors and the chemical fertilizer industry, for example, with millions."

Nope, I hardly count that as criticism of Chopp. Rolf is talking about all the Democrats, even the governor, though he didn't mention her. The SEIU is not a critic of Chopp and Rolf doesn't mention the speaker in any negative fashion in Feit's piece. When the Sonics deal collapsed this week, it was Chopp alone who got praised by name in a statement from Rolf.

How about the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition? Feit wrote:

"I was really surprised to hear the Democratic leadership was even talking about codifying Tim Eyman's tax cap," says Christy Margelli, communications director of the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition, a liberal group that's been lobbying this session for a more progressive tax code. A Democratic bill to codify Eyman's tax plan died in committee, but the Democratic leadership revived it in caucus. "It seems like an odd place for a strong Democratic majority to be — busy talking about moving Tim Eyman's agenda," Margelli says. "The thinking behind that is defensive. When you have a big majority you should have an offensive posture."

Nothing was "revived" in caucus. The caucus had a discussion about the bill because its sponsor, Rep. Chris Hurst, kept pushing Chopp to let it come to a vote. Chopp told him there was no support, and it died. There were a group of moderate to conservative Democrats who did want to codify 747. But there's no evidence Chopp was ever one of them.

Then there was the claim that "Even a Democratic State Senator and a State Rep." offered criticism of Chopp's attempts to steer the House to a centrist agenda. Feit wrote:

As the Olympian first reported in early April, liberal Representative Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia) threatened to resign after Chopp tabled a consumer-protection bill for homeowners that Williams had moved through the House Judiciary Committee.

And then the original sponsor of the bill, Democratic State Senator Brian Weinstein (D-41, Mercer Island), who passed the bill out of the Democratic Senate 30-19, told The Stranger that Chopp was acting like a dictator.

They did say those things. They both popped off when angry and showed how frustrated they were with Chopp. And then they worked very hard to make sure everyone knew that while they disagreed with the speaker on that issue, they had no questions about his leadership. Feit's quotes did not tell the full story. Here's a more recent quote in the Olympian from Williams:

"Frank has to balance this out for the statewide population with business and labor. I don't have to do that. That's not my job."

He called Chopp his friend and leader.

Feit offered a liberal critique of Chopp's leadership. He wishes Chopp were more liberal. Fair enough. A lot of people wish that. But it is not the case that there is widespread, vocal opposition to Chopp from liberals inside or outside of the House caucus. More than anything there is a frustrated acceptance of the situation.

There's a reason why it's important to look at this reporting and to really focus on who is saying what. The House speaker — as the case with any speaker — is only as powerful as his members allow him to be. To portray Chopp as a dictator excuses the 61 other members of the Democratic caucus from any responsibility. And frankly that's part of what Chopp wants to do — shield members from criticism to help them get re-elected.

Feit's headline said that Chopp is to blame for "blocking the Democratic agenda." But Chopp has never claimed to be a great liberal crusader. Some lawmakers are seen that way. Shouldn't they be held accountable for going along with Chopp? There are lots of bills that individual lawmakers want that don't get passed, or even get a hearing. But is there a "Democratic agenda" that Chopp has stopped over the protests of his members? No.

Chopp has ticked off plenty of people around Olympia. He involves himself in as many issues as he can — and sometimes even more than I imagine can really be handled at one time. He can be moody and disagreeable, particularly with the press, staff and sometimes other legislators. He doesn't like to be questioned and apparently does not feel a need to explain his position on issues.

But if there was a "Democratic agenda" he was single-handedly blocking, the Democrats would find someone else to lead them.

For months, Feit pushed hard in the columns of The Stranger to get the House majority to accept a carbon cap bill sponsored by Rep. Maralyn Chase. She is, without argument, one of the Legislature's most liberal members. And what did she tell Feit about the Radical Centrist Reign of Chopp?

He runs into the problem of competing interests," says Representative Maralyn Chase (D-32), who had a number of progressive bills, like her CO2 cap, ignored by leadership. "But he generally plays the role of King Solomon pretty well."

No doubt Chopp will continue to attract attention. In fact, I just found this which looks like a place dedicated to following the Speaker's actions.

UPDATE: Feit has posted a response to this on The Slog. I'm afraid he read my piece as rushing to defend Chopp. I don't see it that way of course. I don't care personally whether Chopp is liberal or not, or whether people are mad at him or not. I have no need to defend him. I just didn't think that Feit's reporting backed up his thesis. You can read his take and see what you think.

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