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Monday, January 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chopp takes helm of House today

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — It's been nearly 40 years since a Seattle legislator ruled the state House of Representatives. Democrat Frank Chopp sure picked a tough time to end that drought.

When the Legislature convenes today, Chopp will be named House speaker as Democrats break free from the 49-49 tie that for the past three years forced them to share power with the Republicans.

But any celebrating by Chopp and the Democrats likely will be muted.

The economy stinks. The country's at war. Boeing has dumped thousands of workers. State revenues have plummeted, forcing talk of deep and painful cuts in government services or possibly even new taxes. And Washington's multibillion-dollar traffic mess remains unsolved.

Not long after Democrats won the only two House seats open in last fall's election, Chopp says, some members of his new majority caucus began to wonder out loud, "What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?"

Chopp says he told them, "Man, this is a great opportunity."

Classic Chopp, say those closest to him.

"Frank has no tolerance for a political analysis that says you don't want to rule in bad times," says Nancy Long, Chopp's wife and a former Group Health vice president. "That just does not compute with him."

Chopp's ascent puts Democrats in control of the House, Senate and Governor's Office for the first time in eight years. Chopp, co-speaker with Rep. Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, the past three sessions, becomes the first sole speaker from Seattle since John O'Brien in the early 1960s.

But while the other top Democratic leaders — Gov. Gary Locke and Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder — are established figures in Olympia, Chopp is a relative newcomer. It remains to be seen what kind of leader he will be now that he's no longer fettered by the tie in the House.

Some business leaders and conservatives worry that labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal interest groups may gain too much clout.

But supporters say Chopp has the drive and skills needed to help pull the state through difficult times.

"Everybody will be expecting him to fail," says Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. "He will overcome that."

Moderate leader

Chopp, 48, is well-known in Seattle as a community activist who since the 1970s has run in liberal circles and led numerous local efforts to help feed, clothe and house the poor, elderly and disabled. He's president of the Fremont Public Association, one of the state's largest and most powerful nonprofit social-service organizations.

He lives in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle and represents one of the state's most liberal legislative districts.

As a legislative leader, however, Chopp has adopted a more moderate stance; in fact, he insists the liberal label never fit him in the first place. And he stresses that his focus is no longer just Seattle.

"I don't want you to overemphasize my poverty thing," Chopp says. "I'm a legislator for the whole state now ... and not just poor people."

Friends and foes use similar terms to describe him: More of a pragmatist than an ideologue, emotional, optimistic, highly energetic and, above all, relentless.

"I think Frank probably came out of middle school focused and intense," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, who has known him more than 20 years.

But Chopp's intensity occasionally can cause him to micromanage, critics say. And he has a temper that even he acknowledges can be counterproductive.

In public, Chopp talks mostly in platitudes. But behind the scenes, some lobbyists and fellow lawmakers say, his bluntness can scorch.

"You've got to ... put on your asbestos underwear ... and be willing to take it," says Lincoln Ferris, a business lobbyist.

For a time last year, one of the only things on the walls of Chopp's Capitol office was a handwritten message from his daughter, Ellie, 12, reminding him not to swear.

He seems always in motion and by midmorning can have a rumpled, end-of-the-day look. His heroes range from FDR to Captain Picard of "Star Trek," whose signature order is, "Make it so."

Ask him why he wants to be in politics, and you'll hear this:

"To get things done that make a difference in people's lives. I know that sounds corny, but it's the honest-to-God truth. It's something I grew up with."

Longtime activist

Chopp's heritage is as blue-collar as they come. His parents, both children of Croatian immigrants, grew up in Roslyn, Kittitas County. They met on the picket line during a strike against the local coal mine.

Chopp's father, Frank Sr., started sorting coal at age 12 and never got past sixth grade. He lived on Shaft Street, so named because it was above one of the main mine shafts. Townspeople joked it was because that's what they got from the company — the shaft.

His mother, Anne, made it to ninth grade. At 69, she went back to community college to earn her high-school degree.

Chopp says his parents' enthusiasm for politics blossomed with the New Deal. "My father ... thought Franklin D. Roosevelt was God," Chopp once said.

Chopp's father spent most of his career as a shipyard worker in Bremerton, where Chopp grew up. That upbringing left its imprint.

"It's not Robin Hood, take from the rich, give to the poor," says Long, his wife. "It's more of an all-boats-rise type of philosophy: Work hard, get an education, make life better for your kids than it was for you."

Chopp took to political activism early. As speaker of the student House of Representatives in high school, he led a successful effort to bar the local Elks Club from handing out its annual citizenship awards to students. It was his way of protesting the club's policy at the time of not allowing black members.

At the University of Washington, he quit the urban-planning program because he thought the instructors "had not actually participated that much in the real world." Instead, Chopp was allowed to create his own major and now may be the only person in the world with a degree in comprehensive planning and citizen action.

While in college, Chopp helped organize efforts to preserve low-income housing near downtown Seattle. He drew public attention in 1974, at age 20, when he moved into an 11-foot-wide structure in a church parking lot. He called it his "Alternate Breakdown, Three-Frequency Geodesic Domed Icosahedron," a $200 answer to the problem of housing the poor.

'Taking on the establishment'

As a community organizer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chopp honed his skills at winning government money for programs to help the poor. One of his favorite tactics was to pack City Hall with supporters — the elderly, the homeless, people in wheelchairs. He would coach them when to cheer — and jeer.

"There were 145 seats," Chopp says. "So I always made sure to have 170 people there."

In 1983, eight years out of college, Chopp took over as executive director of the Fremont Public Association, a post he held 15 years. While he no longer runs the association on a day-to-day basis, he still serves as president.

The organization's annual budget, made up largely of government grants, has grown to $16.5 million from less than $300,000 when Chopp arrived. The association operates 30 programs, from shelters for victims of domestic violence to transit for people with disabilities.

In one vintage battle, Chopp bucked community resistance to get housing for the homeless at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station along Lake Washington.

"I've enjoyed taking on the establishment," Chopp says, "getting them to pay attention and do the right thing."

Now Chopp is the establishment.

Challenging time to lead

Eager for a chance to do even bigger things, Chopp first was elected to the state House in 1994. It was a disastrous time for the Democrats, who were walloped by the Republicans that year and lost control of the House for the first time in 12 years.

It took House Democrats four years to pull back into a tie with Republicans, creating only the second such deadlock in state history.

Democrats chose Chopp as their leader. At the time, a rift separated the urban and rural members within the party's caucus. Chopp, with his small-town upbringing and big-city ties, was seen as the bridge over that schism. Democrats said at the time they felt comfortable with his pragmatic style and moderate tone.

But from the start of the power-sharing arrangement in 1999, the Republicans and Democrats had a hard time pushing through legislation of any significance. By last session, the House had become enmeshed in acrimony. Republican leaders declined to talk in depth about Chopp for this story.

The House barely managed to get a budget passed in time for the start of the new fiscal year. And although they spent a near-record amount of time in session, 163 days, the two sides never were able to agree on a transportation-improvement package.

Heading into this year's session, Chopp and the Democrats hold the slimmest majority — 50-48. Democrats in the Senate hold only a one-seat majority.

Still, Democrats and their support groups will bring a lot of pent-up desires to this Legislature. Among them: a big push by labor unions for legislation to grant collective-bargaining rights to state employees.

That worries many business leaders.

"I think the test of Frank Chopp's leadership is going to be to control his caucus, to lower expectations," says Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

Friends, foes among Dems

Chopp might also have to work around some lingering hard feelings within his own majority. He infuriated some key members of the Democratic caucus last year when he blocked legislation that would have allowed construction to begin on a second bridge across the Tacoma Narrows.

Chopp opposed the plan, despite pressure from business and labor lobbyists, because it would have allowed the bridge contractor to finance the project and let the company set the tolls for years to come. That should be government's role, he insisted.

Chopp's main foe on the bridge fight, Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, is still seething. She says Chopp all but disregarded her authority as the Democrats' top-ranking member on the House Transportation Committee.

"He doesn't always function as a leader," Fisher says. "He tries to take control of everything, and that's going to get him in trouble."

But others view Chopp's stubborn stand on the Narrows bridge — some predict he will get his way and the state will finance construction — as an illustration of his strength as a leader.

Rep. Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam, Democratic majority leader, says the bridge fight shows how much he is willing to stand on principle.

"I came away from that with a great deal of respect for him," Kessler says. "It certainly could have cost him his speakership. It could have threatened us getting back in the majority."

Ralph Thomas can be reached at 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com.

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