Monday, May 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Helping Hand Has Muscle -- Lawmaker's Activism Is Potent Force

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Frank Chopp is hoping to build this summer what could be called the capital of Seattle's liberal-activist establishment - a $4.9 million headquarters and multiservice center for his Fremont Public Association.

But there's an irony: His organization, which has trained neighborhoods to fight unwanted developments, is itself the target of a citizen group's lawsuit.

"I do know, in Seattle, this takes a while, so I try to be patient," he says.

Chopp knows Seattle process as well as anyone.

As executive director of the nonprofit association for the past 15 years, he has lobbied elected officials, sat through the long meetings, and won public funding to house the homeless, feed the hungry, help the elderly and support schools.

The effort has not only helped the disadvantaged, now some 10,000 clients a year, but it also has made Chopp a potent presence in local politics. He and other social-services advocates help explain why causes such as the homeless are hallowed at City Hall.

Chopp solidified his presence by winning election in 1994 to the state House, where he's seen as an effective advocate of spending on social services - though never, he says, for his own organization.

"Frank has a great deal of influence in the Democratic Party," says John Fox, a former Fremont employee and now coordinator for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a housing activist group. "Because of his influence, he is able to get in and broker with people to secure services and revenue."

Yet, for all his clout, Chopp is frustrated with the delays surrounding his costliest construction project, at 1501 N. 45th St. in Wallingford. More than four years ago, the association bought the land, which shares an alley with the old Lincoln High School.

After more than six different homes in 15 years, the association is eager for a permanent office for its employees and a variety of community services, a conference center, food bank, family resource center and other uses. The association has offered space for a Seattle Public Library branch if funding can be found to make the move.

A community group calling itself Concerned Residents of Wallingford (CROW) has filed a lawsuit to be heard June 16 in King County Superior Court. The group is concerned about noise and traffic impacts on the neighborhood.

On one level, the building fight is, itself, a debate over Chopp. Is he so powerful that local agencies in his debt will help the building project? Or is he just another developer who will become ensnared by the NIMBYs?

While the degree of his power might be debated, Chopp's widespread influence is unquestioned. At the moment, two of the hottest proposed projects at City Hall trace back to Chopp: low-income housing at Sand Point and a downtown hygiene center for the homeless.

Union background

Chopp, 44, grew up in Bremerton, the son of a coal miner who moved to the shipyards and found employment as a union electrical worker. His parents taught him to admire Franklin Roosevelt, a champion of government assistance to the needy.

Chopp came to public attention in 1974 as a 20-year-old University of Washington student who lived in a geodesic dome in a parking lot, as a demonstration of low-cost housing. Now he lives in a house in Wallingford.

A slightly rumpled, mustachioed man with a baritone voice suitable for a late-night jazz program, Chopp often looks calm but is a passionate fighter for principle.

As a city employee, he co-sponsored a 1977 initiative to roll back a pay increase for the City Council. The measure fizzled, though Chopp had focused attention on politicians who vote themselves raises.

"Public officials need to be responsible about their salaries," says Chopp, who gets $40,000 a year as association chief and another $28,300 as a legislator. He says the current pay for legislators is adequate and supports the system of using an independent commission to set legislators' pay.

Roots in Nixon program

The Fremont Public Association began in 1974 as a branch of President Nixon's Model Cities anti-poverty program. Chopp started working with the association in 1976 and became executive director in 1983.

Chopp, who once jokingly called himself "a wild person from Fremont," runs a sophisticated organization with 252 employees. The City Council he once criticized now provides about a third of the association's $8.5 million annual budget. Counting all sources, taxpayers provide 87 percent of the agency's operating budget.

The public is paying for a little more than half of the proposed headquarters' cost. Plus, a $2 million loan will come from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, a state agency whose rules allow lending to various nonprofit programs.

The Fremont association is "very powerful. They have a lot of money. . . . Frank is very effective," says Jeanette Williams, former Seattle City Councilwoman and leader of a Sand Point neighborhood group battling a Fremont association spinoff organization. "They have a good track record of helping people, but they flourish."

And how.

Chopp has helped spawn a large number of activist groups, service agencies and programs.

He helped start the Cascade Shelter Project, which assists tenants in buying their buildings; the Workers Center, which finds work for displaced employees; Lettuce Link, which helps the poor grow their own produce; Community Voice Mail, which gives employers a chance to reach the homeless with job offers; the Sand Point Community Housing Association, which is pushing to develop 200 units of transitional- and low-income housing at the old naval station; and the Low Income Housing Institute, which wants a hygiene center for the homeless downtown.

And that's just a partial list.

"I'm too busy. I've never added it up," says Chopp.

Chopp and his wife, health-care manager Nancy Long, helped create the Coalition for Survival Services, the umbrella organization for 50 nonprofit local programs that serve low-income residents.

Chopp and others once campaigned to sign up clients at food banks and health clinics as voters; they netted 20,000.

Seattle would not have so strongly supported social services if Chopp and Long "had not put together effective coalitions and neutralized the opposition," former City Councilman Jim Street once said.

Part of the talent is timing.

Chopp once flooded the old Metro Council chambers with a large group of elderly and disabled, who noisily lobbied for funding of his Personal Transit program, which operates vans that pick up people at their homes. As people in wheelchairs told of their difficulties getting to the store or the doctor, opponents on the council quickly switched sides.

"Whenever you do something new, it makes people uncomfortable," Chopp says.

Big strides in housing

Chopp has mentored some of the city's most aggressive activists.

His advice to them: Convince yourself something can be done, connect with the network of people who make the decisions and be relentless. "If you get hot under the collar, it can help your cause, because they know you are so concerned about the issue you're getting emotional about it," he once said. Today, he'd add that people should behave "in an appropriate manner."

Housing is one area where Chopp has made a significant mark. By working with others to mentor activists and helping to form organizations, he is part of the reason Seattle is nationally known for its direct assistance to housing programs.

This year, the city will spend $17.78 million - not counting money from federal or other sources - on housing programs.

He's renowned for diplomacy and coalition-building. Ever since he used a free Chinese meal to entice people to attend a housing co-op meeting, he has found ways to gather disparate groups.

When social activists criticized the notion of public funding of a new downtown Seattle Art Museum, he helped put together an unusual coalition that jointly promoted successful levies for both housing and the museum.

Chopp also has been an important supporter of schools. Among other efforts, the Fremont Public Association has raised money to buy books and hire artists to paint murals in schools. It provides volunteers to run dinners for families at B.F. Day School in Fremont.

Roots of a controversy

Ironically, the strong ties between the Seattle School District and the association fuel controversy around the proposed Wallingford headquarters.

CROW wants the district to cancel a 25-year agreement, made in 1994, that assigns to the association 50 parking spaces at the old Lincoln High School nearby. Superintendent John Stanford recently reaffirmed that agreement, even though Ballard High will temporarily move there this fall.

District staff members say the agreement follows a policy of "co-locating" social services with schools.

School Board member Ellen Roe says she opposed the agreement but was told by another board member, whom she would not identify, that the district "owed something to the association."

CROW said the association is getting something no other developer could. Says Rick Aramburu, attorney for CROW: "There are some interlocking relationships here, and at some point you do favors for your friends, if that's the situation, but at some point you've got to do what's best for the neighborhood."

Chopp, the veteran of so many campaigns, now works out of a temporary office on lower Queen Anne. He says he's trying to resolve the headquarters parking dispute by finding an alternative to the Lincoln spots.

He scoffs at the notion he is so powerful that the city and district bend to his will. "There's no special treatment," says Chopp. "If anything, look at how long it's taken."

Looking around at the boxes that crowd his office, he rests his elbows on cheap furniture, hardly the throne of a political boss.

"Do we look like the Establishment?" he asks.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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