Chopping Block

Could state House Speaker Frank Copp, D-Seattle, get the ax?

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, says the discontent over the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) $200,000 campaign to oust state Rep. Helen Sommers (see "Purple Reign") will lead to the ouster of the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "They tried to take the queen, and I think they hit the speaker," he quips. Chopp says he is not worried, but talk of a leadership challenge is circulating among Democrats across the state.

Chopp is a longtime ally of the SEIU and a passionate advocate for social service spending in general and home health care workers in particular—he is the president of the Fremont Public Association, a human services provider, when he's not working as a legislator. For decades, Chopp has been a close friend of Alice Woldt, the Seattle activist who ran against Sommers in the Democratic primary. Liberal Chopp and moderate Sommers have frequently clashed in recent years inside the Democratic House caucus, which is fractured along similar ideological lines. Chopp officially remained neutral in the Woldt- Sommers race, a slap in the face to Sommers, a veteran member of his leadership team and chief budget writer. Chopp, or any speaker, is expected to vigorously defend any members from a challenger, explains Jacobsen. "He has undermined any cohesion."

A five-term representative, Chopp was elected as leader in 1998 by a majority of the House Democratic caucus, when the Dems were not in power. His tenure has included a co-speakership, when the House was evenly divided between the two parties, and controversies over his preference for voter referendums on tax increases. During the 2003 and 2004 sessions, the House Democratic majority was divided over the need for new taxes and had difficulty formulating a strong, unifying message. The Republican Senate and Democratic Gov. Gary Locke took full advantage of the weakness to pass a no-new-taxes budget.

While most Democrats are predictably circumspect on the subject of replacing a sitting speaker, they are not mute. When Sommers is asked if she expects a challenge to Chopp in the wake of her race, she says, "That would be the normal action." State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, says, "In any other caucus, in any other state, leadership would have backed SEIU off. The fact that leadership didn't do that is a problem that we have to deal with."

Chopp insists he did try to talk Woldt and SEIU out of challenging Sommers. "I did urge them not to do this," says Chopp. "I don't control SEIU. Nobody does." Chopp says he has been focusing on picking up Democratic House seats in swing districts. He has been very successful at recruiting and training candidates who win. When Chopp took over as party leader, the Democrats were in the minority with 36 seats; now they have 52. He hopes to have more by November. "The job of the speaker is to recruit people and work toward the majority," says Chopp.

That's why he's unlikely to be replaced, says House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "How do you oust the guy who brought you to the party?" she asks.

Says Chopp, "There are sore feelings, but I'm sure people will get over it."

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