On January 11, 1999, state representatives elect both Republican Clyde Ballard and Democrat Frank Chopp to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. The designation of two co-Speakers, instead of the usual single Speaker elected by the majority party, results from the November 1998 election in which voters sent 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats to the House. With no majority, the parties have to share power, including the Speaker's role, just as they did 20 years earlier, the first time that the House membership was tied between the two parties. Ballard and Chopp will go on to serve as co-Speakers for three years because the 2000 election will also produce a 49-49 tie.
All Tied Up
Normally the majority party elects the Speaker to preside over the session, designates the committee chairs, and selects non-member employees. Since the 1995 session, the majority party in the state House of Representatives had been the Republicans. Led by Clyde Ballard, an East Wenatchee businessman who represented the 12th District, they won control of the state House of Representatives (as the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans won the U.S. House) in the 1994 election. With Republicans in charge, Ballard was elected Speaker in the 1995 session and he remained Speaker when the Republicans held their majority in the 1996 election. However, on November 3, 1998, the Democrats gained eight seats and forged a 49-to-49 tie with the Republicans.
The tie in membership was not unprecedented, having occurred once before, following the 1978 election. That time Republican House leader Duane Berentson (1928-2013) and Democratic leader John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009), longtime colleagues with a good working relationship, devised the power sharing arrangement in which they served as co-Speakers, presiding on opposite days. Under Berentson and Bagnariol the parties also shared control of committees, with co-chairs for the most important committees and the others divided between the parties. The experience from 20 years ago helped as the parties arranged to share power again in 1999.
The official election of Speakers on the first day of the session, January 11, was a formality because as usual each party caucus chose its leader in advance. Ballard, who had been the sole Speaker for four years, became the Republican co-Speaker. His Democratic counterpart was Frank Chopp, the executive director of a non-profit agency who represented the 43rd District in Seattle. Chopp had only served in the legislature for five years, but after fellow Seattle Democrat Helen Sommers (the only Representative still serving who had been a member during the 1979-1981 tie) turned down the leadership role, Chopp prevailed in a caucus vote that divided along urban-rural lines.
Two Hands on the Gavel
On January 11, 1999, the two co-Speakers were formally elected by voice vote. After being sworn in, they posed with a two-handled gavel like one that had been presented to Berentson and Bagnariol two decades earlier. The gag gavel was not the only similarity between the two tied House sessions. Under rules adopted by Ballard and Chopp, as under their co-Speaker predecessors, control of committees was evenly divided and no bill could come to the floor unless both parties approved. As a result, few controversial measures passed and most legislation enacted in 1999 and 2000 had substantial bipartisan support, including patient rights protections and increased unemployment benefits.
As in the 1979 and 1980 sessions, the evenly divided parties managed to maintain a reasonably cooperative working relationship, with the state budget being the biggest exception. Chopp, whose low-key, inclusive leadership style was praised by Democratic colleagues, managed to garner two Republican votes to pass a budget bill over the objections of Ballard and most Republicans.
Although a membership tie in the House was a novelty in 1979, by 2001 it began to seem commonplace. For the second straight election, voters in November 2000 chose 49 Republican Representatives and 49 Democratic Representatives. As a result, Ballard and Chopp were re-elected as co-Speakers in 2001. In that year's session there was less cooperation and more frustration as the House failed to reach agreement on the issue many members had identified as the most important -- transportation funding.
Tied and Untied
Because House members serve two-year terms, the tie created in the 2000 election would normally have lasted until the regular 2002 House election. But as it turned out, two Snohomish County House seats were vacated in 2001. Democrat Patricia Scott, who represented the 38th District, died and Republican Renee Radcliff of the 21st District surprised colleagues by resigning midway through her term. Special elections to fill both seats were held in November 2001, and Democrats -- Mukilteo Mayor Brian Sullivan in the 21st and Jean Berkey in the 38th -- won both by narrow margins.
With their new 50-to-48 majority, House Democrats elected Frank Chopp as the sole Speaker at the start of the 2002 session. Ballard retired at the end of his term following that session. Democrats increased their majority in the House over the next several elections and as of 2009 Chopp remains Speaker of the House and one of the most powerful politicians in the state.