Coffee house government

Marketplace Staff Oct 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It might be time for chocolate lovers to stock up on their sweet of choice. Cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast went on strike today. They’re pushing for higher retail prices. Lower export taxes, too. Whether the strike works or not, prices for cocoa are probably going to go up. Ivory Coast produces about 40 percent of the world’s cocoa.

So you might be shelling out a bit more for that mocha in the near future. If you frequent Starbucks, that’ll be on top of the nickel price hike we saw earlier this month. That probably won’t keep consumers away. The average American drinks about 45 gallons of coffee a year. Politicians are stopping by for a cuppa joe, too. And doing a little business on the side. From Seattle, Amy Radil explains.

AMY RADIL: Try booking a meeting with your local legislator in Seattle and you’ll probably be assigned a date and time at the nearest coffeeshop.

Frank Chopp is the Washington state house speaker. He says local coffeeshops provide a utopian atmosphere of constituent access and transparent government.

FRANK CHOPP:“Well, I think the Romans had the Forum, we have our coffeeshops.”

Pretty much every Seattle politician has a local haunt. Chopp holds his meetings at Tully’s coffeeshop near his home. But as a recruiter of Democratic candidates, Chopp rides the coffeeshop circuit statewide. He says one of the best gauges of potential legislators is watching them on their home turf.

CHOPP:“In fact, a lot of times when I’m recruiting candidates for office, I sort of can tell right off the bat, if they’ve got more than five people who say hi to them at their local coffee shop, then I know they have a chance to win.”

No one greets Chopp during our meeting, but he is pretty booked up. And staff members seem to know who he is.

Another state legislator, Ed Murray, holds down a table at a nearby cafe. Murray explains that, in part, his open-air office is a question of dollars and cents.

ED MURRAY:“Every legislator gets the same amount of money for an office. If you’re in eastern Washington, you can rent a building. But if you’re in the core of Seattle, you have enough room for your assistant to have a desk and be able to turn around.”

Murray will spend the day here, meeting with constituents and big-wigs in 15-minute sessions. He says sometimes he misses the more formal surroundings of the state capital in Olympia. Here, it’s almost too easy to get cornered by someone with an issue.

MURRAY:“When people come visit me in Olympia my aide can move them in and out, so the next person can come in. There are occasions here where, if someone decides they’re going to go off and dominate my time, there’s not a lot I can do.”

But at the same time, politicians say meeting here provides an important symbol of government openness. And there’s the ethical aspect during campaign season. State ethics rules forbid politicians from discussing campaign issues in their offices.

MURRAY:“You cannot use state facilities to meet with people on a campaign issue. So, again, meeting in a public place is great. I’m not violating ethics rules and I don’t have to run back and forth.”

Of course, in Seattle, even a politician’s choice of coffeeshop may be subject to voter scrutiny. Murray seems slightly apologetic about his.

MURRAY:“I do frequent other coffee shops besides Starbucks.”

Others make a point of choosing independent coffeehouses. Whatever the venue, Seattle’s modern-day forum does have its price. Speaker Chopp says he usually buys two coffee drinks a day at about $3.50 each.

But for all-day office space, that rent comes pretty cheap.

In Seattle, I’m Amy Radil for Marketplace.

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