Politics & Government

Long-serving Chopp keeps enigmatic aura

Frank Chopp, an idealistic social-services liberal from Seattle, arrived at the Legislature 12 winters ago, just as voters were enlisting in the "Republican Revolution." In a single election, the House Democrats had plummeted from a 65-seat majority to a skimpy 35-seat minority.

Chopp wondered what he'd gotten himself into, but settled in and began an unexpectedly meteoric rise. He was soon the leader of his caucus and became co-speaker when his Democrats pulled into an oddball 49-49 tie, then came into his own as the caucus took control and grew with every election.

Counting his time as co-speaker, Chopp is Washington's longest-serving speaker, now in his ninth year and showing no signs of losing his interest or his majority.

He's one of the most powerful speakers in modern times despite sharing power with a team of colleagues who run the speakership almost as a collective.

Some of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle view his tactics as heavy-handed and stubborn at times, says House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. Then-Transportation Chairwoman Ruth Fisher, D-

Tacoma, stormed around for days when Chopp derailed her plan for a privately financed Tacoma Narrows bridge and her successor, Ed Murray, who hails from Chopp's own district, didn't disguise his frustration on various occasions.

This week, Chopp, the top critic of Seattle's plan for a multibillion-dollar waterfront tunnel in his district, all but buried the project. His fellow Democrat, Mayor Greg Nickels, said he was deeply disappointed and essentially called Chopp and Co. dictators.

"No other city in the state has been treated in this manner," Nickels thundered.

Chopp, 53, is one of the least stuffy political leaders around. He hails from immigrant Croatian stock - his grandfather was a coal miner in Roslyn - and grew up on "Poverty Slope" on the outskirts of Bremerton in a family that served up politics with the stew. To this date, Chopp loves to talk about "bread and butter" issues or "kitchen--table" concerns.

Although Chopp's not well known by the average citizen, he's one of the state's most powerful and enigmatic pols. He has two passions - policy and campaigns - and says they're inseparable.

"In order to do good, you've got to do good on campaigns," he says.

David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He may be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA 98507, or by e-mail at dammons@ap.org.