Speaker Frank Chopp: Time for a master to work his magic

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Sunday, April 3, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

With three weeks left in the regular session, there are 146 state lawmakers and a governor wondering if the Legislature can finish its work to get out on time.

And there’s one person who probably knows: House Speaker Frank Chopp.

He is arguably the most powerful figure in the Capitol these days, a man whose influence is present in every conversation and felt in every vote. His power grows stronger the less he’s seen and heard and not many are seeing or hearing him lately.

This means we’ve definitely entered the Chopp Time Zone in which the minutes that matter most are those he spends piecing together budget and policy puzzles that must be completed to avoid a special session.

This is his moment. He’s a master, maybe the best House speaker this state has ever had, at knowing every member’s pressure points and how hard he can press them to get the perfect political fit.

Moreover he’s got a sixth sense of how far his majority Democratic caucus can push its agenda before it will ignite an explosion of public opposition. It’s a reason Democrats rode out the white caps of tea party anger in 2010 and didn’t get washed out of leadership in the People’s House as some thought might happen.

I point this out because thousands of people who are the soul and backbone of the Democratic Party are coming to the Capitol this week. Each day, a different contingent will be calling on Chopp and Co. to find ways other than cutting programs to erase a $5.1 billion shortfall.

They’re bound to be disappointed because much of what they want is not likely to be what Chopp winds up doing.

Teachers are coming Monday and Mark Mains, who teaches fifth grade in the Mukilteo School District, will be among them.

They’re pushing to suspend the requirement for students to pass a high stakes test to graduate then shift $50 million from that program into keeping class sizes small in kindergarten through fourth grade. Doing so will preserve several hundred jobs statewide, they say.

“We get it. There’s not going to be any more money,” Mains said. “If there’s no new money, then what we have to do is take what we have and emphasize teaching over testing.”

Not many teachers are coming as this is not intended to be a show of force.

The scene will be much different the rest of the week. Rallies with large crowds are planned each day and a little civil disobedience could get sprinkled in, too.

On Tuesday, Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights, or POWER, will focus on preserving programs for low-income families. Wednesday, the Alliance for a Just Society will rally for human services on the budget chopping block.

Thursday, SEIU will fill the Capitol with home health care workers railing against further cuts in programs for the disabled. They’ll be joined by as many as 1,000 mental health professionals who plan to conduct a one-day strike to attend.

Friday is the culminating event coordinated by the Washington State Labor Council with at least 5,000 people expected. Firefighters, trade unionists, government workers, teachers and community activists from around the state are expected to fill the campus.

There, in a singular loud voice, they will demand the Legislature eliminate corporate tax breaks as part of the budget-balancing solution. They won’t say what happens if they don’t.

“We cannot have an all-cuts budget,” the Rev. Paul Benz of the Lutheran Public Policy Office said. “We call on those in the halls of power to do something.”

Chopp’s not expected to drop by. He’ll hear them and we’ll all wait to see what he does about it.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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