Leaving a legacy of neighborhood activism and straight talk, Charlie Chong died last week at age 80 after heart surgery.
Elected to an open seat on the Seattle City Council in 1996, Chong left the council a year later to run for mayor; he edged out current mayor Greg Nickels in the primary, then lost to Paul Schell. He had run unsuccessfully for the council in 1995, and lost again in 1999.
Chong’s activist experience was tempered by anti-poverty work in the Civil Rights Movement. He was a community organizer in Arkansas in the ’60s and an early employee for the federal volunteer program VISTA
Family friend and political ally Geof Logan remembers Chong as a strong advocate for the merchants, craftspeople ,and community members of Pike Place Market, where he most recently helped in an unsuccessful fight to stop the eviction of immigrant-owned Rainier Hardware, the last hardware store in downtown Seattle.
“When I think of Charlie I think of truth speaking to power,” says Logan. “He really believed that when you’re in public service you’re there to serve the public, not the other way around.”
Neighborhood activist Kent Kammerer says he shared Chong’s “common sense” approach to government. Chong knew he wasn’t elected to the City Council to be collegial; Kammerer remembers him asking “very hard questions” of city administrators.
“He knew that the buck stopped with government, and he knew they had a responsbility to act accordingly,” says Kammerer, leader of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition.
Former director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Jim Diers also remembers that he and Chong didn’t agree on everything, but he appreciated his work to restore native plants in a West Seattle ravine that Chong helped save from development. “He was down there every weekend leading those work parties,” says Diers.
Those who knew him agree that no one currently in government has Chong’s “homespun, unvarnished honesty,” says his former campaign manager and legislative aide, Matt Fox, now president of the U-District Community Council.
“Charlie said what he thought. People in Seattle say they want that, but by and large they elect very risk-averse, corporate-friendly, status quo politicians,” he says. “There is still room for that kind of candor.”
Chong’s legacy, Fox says, is the new libraries and community centers spread throughout the city.
Before him, “Every bond was for gigantic ‘world-class city’ projects,” he says. “City Hall now understands that to get their big downtown projects they have to share the wealth with the neighborhoods.”
The funeral takes place Saturday, May 12, at noon at Holy Rosary Church, 4210 SW Genesee in West Seattle. A reception will follow at adjoining Lannigan Hall. The service is open to the public.