Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43rd Dist.) has a progressive reputation. As speaker of the house in the Washington State Legislature for the past decade, Chopp has helped preserve funding for many basic human services that his more conservative colleagues were prepared to cut entirely.
In Seattle, he has longstanding ties to progressive organizations such as Solid Ground, the Low Income Housing Institute and the Economic Opportunity Institute.
Now seeking his 10th term in office, Chopp is facing a new kind of opposition.
His more left-leaning challenger describes Chopp as a powerful establishment politician buoyed by corporate money.
Taking on Chopp is Kshama Sawant, who teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University, identifies as a member of the Socialist Alternative Party and advocates for public ownership of Boeing and Microsoft.
The race has become a battle between the left and the further left, with Chopp presenting himself as a long-time advocate for the poor and homeless.
“It’s given me an opportunity to talk about the same kinds of issues I’ve been talking about for 35 years, which is good public schools, health care for all, housing for all, equal justice for all,” Chopp said.
Sawant said Chopp has failed to pass a truly progressive agenda.
“We have to recall that for 10 years, he’s been the speaker of the house, which means effectively he’s the most powerful player in the legislature,” Sawant said. “If he actually wanted to carry out a progressive agenda, he could.”
Progressive from the start Chopp’s activism began when he was a student at the University of Washington. In the early 1970s, he started the Cascade Shelter Project, setting up geodesic domes in vacant parking lots for homeless people.
In 1983, Chopp began his long run as the executive director of the Fremont Public Association (now Solid Ground).
He carried that focus on housing into the legislature in 1995, he said.
“I haven’t solved all the world’s problems, but I’ve really made an impact to help people,” he said.
Most recently, Chopp helped create the Housing and Essential Needs program to replace another program called Disability Lifeline. Disability Lifeline provided housing and cash assistance to people with no income who couldn’t work because of a disability.
Housing and Essential Needs preserved some of the housing assistance but replaced the cash assistance with a program doling out mops, dish soap and dental floss to people with no income.
Chopp also expanded Apple Health for Kids, a program that provides health insurance for low-income children.
He uses these examples to show how far the state has come. Just a couple decades ago, Washington did not even have state services for the homeless, he said.
As for corporate donations, Chopp said he’s never been beholden to corporate interests because he donates those campaign contributions to other progressive candidates.
The more radical candidate Sawant, who was born in India and immigrated to the u.s. as a child, found political traction with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
She taught economics classes at all-night teach-ins that Occupy Seattle held in 2011.
In the primary, she ran against Jamie Pedersen for Position One in the 43rd Legislative District. But The Stranger endorsed Sawant as a write-in candidate against Chopp for Position 2, and she received
12 percent of the vote. Sawant calls for a $15 minimum wage, employee ownership of the 500 largest companies in the country and an end to 500 corporate tax exemptions to generate $6.5 billion in revenue.
That’s just if she’s elected. Her campaign is part of a larger strategy, with the Socialist Alternative Party, to get more radical candidates to run for public office, including city council and mayoral races.
“If we win, that will be fantastic, and we’ll be carrying this message louder and clearer in Olympia,” she said. “But I would say that, independent of winning, this has been a trailblazing campaign already.”
Their differences Despite Chopp’s popularity, Sawant has still managed to put him on the defensive, reframing as failures the human services funding Chopp has preserved over the past two years. Sawant called Chopp’s efforts “a Band-Aid on a wound that keeps growing and festering.”
Chopp said he’s already accomplished much of what Sawant proposes, but it takes votes from others, too.
“Would I like further tax reform? Absolutely. Should the wealthy pay more? Absolutely. But I’ve done quite a number of things to make progress toward that goal,” he said.
“The key is to actually get things done, not just talk about them,” he said.