Can the Socialist lightning strike twice in Seattle politics? That’s the big question as the woman who helped lead Kshama Sawant’s stunning upset election to the Seattle City Council seeks to topple Washington state’s Speaker of the House.
Before November’s election that saw Sawant defeat longtime incumbent Richard Conlin, the thought of a Socialist candidate winning any election was virtually inconceivable – even in super-liberal Seattle.
Emboldened by Sawant’s victory, 32-year-old Jess Spear is taking on Frank Chopp, the powerful and longest-standing Speaker of the House in state history.
Spear’s campaign in Seattle’s predominantly Democratic 43rd Legislative District is following the playbook she used as Sawant’s campaign manager – a persistent drumbeat of progressive issues like a $15 minimum wage, rent control and criticism of big business.
But even though Sawant’s campaign did well in the district and brought out enough voters across the city to knock out Conlin, many say a big reason for Conlin’s loss was because he took Sawant for granted.
Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner tells KIRO Radio Chopp is not about to make the same mistake.
“Frank Chopp is a much more seasoned political foe,” Brunner says. “I think Frank Chopp and people around him have sort of woken up to the fact they need to take this seriously, and they are taking this seriously.”
Brunner, who profiles the race in a feature Wednesday, says another big difference in this race is that Chopp will retain virtually all of the labor and liberal group endorsements, something Conlin didn’t have.
“Those people if necessary will get out and doorbell and do that work for him in a way where Richard Conlin didn’t have a big base of volunteers in the way that I think Frank Chopp can mobilize them.”
A major force in Sawant’s election was the endorsement and enthusiastic campaigning by Seattle’s Stranger newspaper, which repeatedly championed her candidacy last year.
But the uber-progressive paper dealt Spear’s hopes a serious blow this week when it endorsed Chopp over the upstart:
“The Stranger Election Control Board loves a badass socialist. (See Sawant, Kshama.) But socialist Jess Spear didn’t convince us she’s ready to bring the people’s revolution to Olympia, and we think longtime House Speaker Frank Chopp and his maddening incrementalism will actually do more for the issues we care about, more quickly, than a Spear election would.”
Spear argues Chopp hasn’t done enough to push progressive causes like rent control, and she blasts him for backing the big tax breaks that helped the state convince Boeing to build its new 777x in Washington state.
But Chopp – a longtime champion of liberal causes – has plenty of “street cred” with Democratic voters in the district, making it unlikely a majority would be willing to back Spear, says KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.
“It’s not worth it to me to take out a strong Democratic Speaker of the House and replace him with somebody who’s opinions are too far extreme or not representative,” he says.
Tangney is among those who give Spear little chance of winning, but say her campaign and Sawant’s election could still push Chopp and other Seattle-area lawmakers to pay greater attention to their pet issue – if for no other reason than out of fear of retribution from the Socialist wing.
Another major hurdle for Spear is money. Brunner reports the climate scientist – who previously worked at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum – has raised just $12,000, while Chopp has already amassed $113,000 for the race.
Still, Brunner says it would be unwise to count out Spear altogether. “It’s an uphill battle, but that’s why they play the games.”