An elegy for straight-shooting Charlie Chong

As a Seattle City Council member and community activist, he said things others wouldn't – the things that were true but were uncomfortable to hear.
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Charlie Chong, 1926-2007.

As a Seattle City Council member and community activist, he said things others wouldn't – the things that were true but were uncomfortable to hear.

The young and the restless and Seattle newcomers won't have known Charlie Chong. He was one of those rare birds who believed as an American he was obligated to get involved and tend to the process of government. He may have believed that government was a little like growing tomatoes – a little water and fertilizer would do wonders, and Charlie was prepared to supply both. Charlie spent a large measure of his life in battle. Most often it was for honesty and openness in public debate, but on Thursday afternoon, April 26, Charlie Chong, at 80, trying his very best, didn't win his last and biggest battle against failing health. Charlie was many years past his prime when he ran for Seattle City Council, but you couldn't tell it. He set the tone for his tour in public office by immediately hiring two young men as aides: one a political activist, the other a musician with long hair. He wanted their energy, their intelligence, their young ideas, but mostly their ability to see with fresh eyes. Maybe, Charlie speculated, he could guess what old folks were thinking, but what he wanted to know was what the new generation was thinking. Besides, he trusted them. The old guard was frosty about his choices as aides and speculated that neither owned a suit, the uniform for City Council offices. But worse, just to embarrass Charlie, they proposed his new aids take a drug test. Charlie responded that if that was the plan, the whole council should pee in a cup. I suspect that when Charlie was a kid he just couldn't walk by a hornets nest without poking it with a stick, just to get the little critters awake in the morning. He also poked some council meetings and hearings, just to get their attention. Instead of looking wise and offering knowing nods and platitudes, Charlie would ask deliciously difficult questions. Like, "Why?" Some of his questions had never been asked. One that made the press was his asking why it wouldn't be smarter to buy used snowplows for Seattle when they were only used every three of four years. It would save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Charlie, a civil servant much of his career, knew that unless the hard questions were asked, sensible, affordable, and practical decisions wouldn't be made. Charlie cared deeply about Seattle neighborhoods and was our knight, our champion, our Sir Lancelot on some days and Don Quixote on others. Charlie was a warrior in what was often a battle between the establishment and the public. Because Charlie said what others were afraid to say, he was often the single voice of reason in a bureaucratic web. But candor in politically correct Seattle would upset the establishment. Charlie had a knack for creating one-line responses to the press. Sometimes he was outright sassy and yanked their chain, a no-no for a politician. The press frequently retaliated and twisted his dry humor of offhand statements into newspaper-selling but unfair quotes. Charlie didn't walk on water and could be cantankerous if cornered. He had strong opinions and made enemies, but his style was always truthful and open. He never told people their ideas were great then voted against them. Pure honesty in politics is so rare that few knew how to deal with a guy who was so candid he would tell them up front that he thought their idea stinks. One of his greatest gifts to this community was his challenge of group think, a contagious disease among Seattle elected officials. Charlie just plain didn't believe he should vote along with everyone if he wasn't sure their idea was best. Even though he voted with others countless times, he is known best for the rare and courageous ability to stand alone. Charlie didn't leave it to others. At an age when some went fishing, Charlie rolled up his sleeves and became involved in countless struggles after leaving the City Council, where his dedication to public service counted for so much. Even those who never heard of Charlie Chong might someday discover that we all owe Charlie Chong, big time. Damn it Charlie, we still need you.


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