Three implications of Frank Chopp’s resignation

The announcement this week that Frank Chopp would resign was some time in the making.  He had been making rumblings privately for months, and some of the folks that fund Democratic politics were increasingly pushing the speaker to release his hold on the caucus.

In some ways, this is a very Seattle-like version of the drama playing out with Speaker Nancy Pelosi:  a long serving leader is less reflective of the caucus that he/she once was, increasingly less tolerant of any questions of his/her leadership, and increasingly challenged from within the broader Democratic Party.

And, like Pelosi, Chopp was re-elected this year to lead the caucus.  Like Pelosi, no formidable candidate rose to offer an alternative.  And, like Pelosi, the fact of the matter is that he has been one of the most effective public policy leaders in Democratic Party history (in this case, state history, in Pelosi’s, national).

Being the leader of the House isn’t easy.  It’s much harder than many folks realize.  Yet, Chopp has presided as speaker since 2001 – since 1999 if you count when he was co-speaker with Clyde Ballard…

Now that he has announced his stepping down from the speaker, there are perhaps three key things for Olympia insiders to watch to see if and how they change in future years.

1.  Eileen Cody is the key to House health policy.  Will Chopp’s decision impact her thinking on retirement?  To paraphrase Bonaparte, après elle le déluge.

Cody and Chopp have long standing mutual respect for each other going back to Chopp’s election. Cody was the choice of many Seattle Democrats against a more moderate Lynn Kessler from Aberdeen.  However, it was Cody that ultimately stepped aside and became the deciding factor in Chopp’s rise to speaker.

Seattle Met has a great piece on this from 2009.  From the article:

“Frank called me up and said, ‘You’ll step down if I decide to run?’ ” Cody says. “I said, ‘Damn straight. You can have it, honey.’ ”

Since then, Cody has been the unquestioned leader on House health policy, with Chopp largely staying out of her way.  It allowed Cody, with her health care expertise, political acumen and legislative savvy, to become among the most important, most well regarded health policy leader of any legislature in the country.

So, when Chopp leaves, it’s likely that Cody will be thinking about it too.  Like Chopp, she’s been thinking about it for a few years.  Neither has yet announced their retirement from the legislature itself, but it’ll be interesting to see how the new leadership fits with Cody’s interest in health policy.

Once Cody leaves, it will be an entirely new world for House health policy making, with large shoes to fill.

2.  You’ll need to do a better job counting votes

There is an entire generation of lobbyists who have grown up on the ease of lobbying the House.  By easy, I don’t mean that it’s simple to get a bill through.  It’s hard.  But, there are a handful of key gatekeepers, of which Frank Chopp was the most important.  If he said the bill was dead, there was no way you were going to get past him, regardless of what the caucus might want to do.  If he got an issue in his cross hairs, he’d be dogged until it got through in the way he wanted it.

This is an overstatement, but only by a little bit:  the most important vote you need to count in the House is Chopp’s.  If the bill was coming to the floor, it very, very likely already had the votes to get through.  Nothing was going to the floor to make the caucus look silly with a defeat.  The defeats that took place on the floor were largely strategic rather than surprises – and there weren’t many of those.

In short, Chopp ruled the caucus with a tight fist.  Caucus members that found that abrasive either left the legislature or they moved to the Senate.

Expect a much more difficult caucus to manage in the immediate aftermath of Chopp’s departure.

3.  The House will get bluer

If you talk with election number geeks, Washington State is generally considered to have about a 56-58% Democratic Performance.  That’s the aggregate of all partisan elections over the last few cycles, across legislative and statewide races.

In an historic blue wave election like this year, where there were more Democratic Congressional pickups than any time since Watergate, you’d expect a strong Democratic majority to have formed in the legislature, too.  Instead, the House Democrats will have 58% of House seats.

That is the result of the 2010 redistricting commission, where the rumor was at the time that the quiet deal among commissioners was to give a relatively safe Democratic Congressional seat around Olympia – the 10th CD – in exchange for making the 1st more swing than it was and to make the legislative map better for Republicans than it would otherwise.

We’ll have an extensive write up we’re working on to explain the 2010 redistricting, and it’s implications, at our sister site the Wire.

But, the reality was in 2010 that Chopp struggled to keep the caucus together. He faced multiple challenges from member that chaffed against his style of leadership.  A “Blue-Green” coalition of labor and enviro votes thought the caucus wasn’t progressive enough.  Folks like Geoff Simpson railed against Chopp from the left.  On the right, more moderate members like Deb Eddy pushed Chopp from the other side.

The result from a large caucus is that it fractures into factions.  If your job is to lead the caucus, you don’t want factions.  You want one team – and one leader.

So, Chopp bet that he could govern a smaller majority more effectively than he could a larger majority.  And, with six sessions under his belt since the 2012 map went into effect, it would appear that he was right.

A future leader is unlikely to make this same deal.  A new leader – perhaps less experienced in caucus leadership but more willing to let the statewide vote totals drive the districts rather than caucus strategy – is more likely to want one vote to equal one vote, and let district boundaries reflect the partisan make up in the state.

It’s clear this is a watershed moment in Washington State history with Chopp’s departure from leadership.  He was a powerful, progressive – if awfully cantankerous and misunderstood – speaker with a long legacy to be proud of in Washington State.