There’s never been a figure in Washington politics quite like Frank Chopp.
Since 2002, the Seattle Democrat has served as speaker of the House of Representatives, a 13-year reign that stands as the longest anyone’s ever held the job in state history.
If you add in the sessions he shared the gavel in a co-speakership with Republican Clyde Ballard — 1999, 2000 and 2001 — it means Chopp has had his hands on the levers of the legislating process in the Legislature since the last century.
It’s made him one of the most influential elected officials in Washington, at times seemingly more powerful than governors. That power is on display daily in Olympia at legislative sessions where lobbyists and lawmakers gauge a bill’s chances on “how Frank feels about it.”
But it can’t last forever. Insiders in both parties are chattering louder than usual that just maybe by this time next year Chopp will be out and Republican leader Dan Kristiansen, of Snohomish, will be in as speaker.
“It’s Frank’s to lose and he just might do it,” theorized a veteran GOP insider. “He’s a smart cookie. Never count him out.”
Chopp could be handing over the gavel and the Democratic Party ceding its majority in the House because Republicans keep adding to their numbers. They’ve picked up seats in each election cycle since 2008 plus a couple of special elections, the latest coming Nov. 3 in a district that straddles King and Pierce counties.
Republican Teri Hickel’s defeat of appointed Democratic Rep. Carol Gregory reduced the Democrats’ advantage to 50-48, down from the 63-35 margin it enjoyed in 2008.
Several factors are fueling the Republican revival, starting with the recruiting of candidates.
Of late, Republicans are doing a better job finding people to run who fit the political philosophy and temperament of their district. They’ve wound up increasing their ranks with younger, moderate and less doctrinaire members, many of whom are women.
Democrats, meanwhile, are losing seats with candidates whose inclinations are more closely aligned with the liberal theology of Seattle politics than the district in which they’re competing.
Campaign strategy is another area Democratic Party leaders are deliberating in their post-election soul-searching.
There’s not been a shortage of money. There are those who think too much is spent on mailers and television commercials, and not enough on contacting voters directly.
This can be a big deal. Republicans’ pro-business, anti-tax message lends itself to such forms of communication.
Democrats’ talk of creating economic equality, strengthening the safety net and combating climate change don’t translate as well on a mailer.
Another challenge facing Chopp and the House Democratic Campaign Committee is a sense of entitlement or complacency among a few members, a product of 13 years of uninterrupted rule.
If the Republican takeover in the state Senate didn’t awaken them to the evolving political balance of power, the very real threat of becoming the minority in the House might do the trick.
Still, there are those in the caucus who rationalized Gregory’s loss as the result of a low turnout that favored Republicans.
They point out 2016 will bring a presidential election. Participation of Democratic voters will soar and enough victories, they figure, will be racked up to preserve the party’s majority once again.
The future of Frank Chopp’s reign as speaker depends on it.