Charlie Chong, West Seattle's populist powerhouse, has bad news for his political enemies. "I'm the genetic replica of my Chinese grandfather. He lived to 93 while smoking, so I've got another 21 years!"
Rumors have been rife about Chong's health since he had heart bypass surgery early in January and announced his candidacy for an open seat on the Seattle City Council in May. In his first fund-raising letter Chong wrote, "There is already a whispering campaign about my health being spread by the media and political elite."
Running on a platform of lowering property taxes, ending "corporate welfare," and slicing the city's "bloated bureaucracy," last year's mayoral loser looks like a front-runner for city council. Despite, or perhaps because of, his electoral strength, his health is on the minds of pundits, political spin doctors, and activists all over town.
In his inimitable fashion, Chong has decided that the best way to deal with the problem is to face it head on. Last week, he shared all the details of his health and gave Dr. G. Gordon Hale, his cardiologist, permission to do the same.
"For years I had chest pains when I'd cut the hedge or run up the hill," recalls Chong. After many examinations and tests, Hale diagnosed Chong's problem as coronary heart disease—a narrowing of the arteries which supply blood to the heart. While Chong did have significant blockages, he luckily never had a heart attack, says Hale.
Hale recommended heart bypass surgery to correct the problem. "The doctor said, 'If you don't die [from the surgery], you're going to feel much better,'" quips Chong. Bypass surgery takes veins from other parts of the body and moves them to the heart—using them to literally bypass the blocked arteries.
While double, triple, or even quadruple bypass surgery is common, leave it to Charlie to set a new standard—nine bypasses. "That's the most I've ever heard of, frankly," says Hale.
Chong describes his healing process as pain free, "aided by good surgeons and good prayers." While in the hospital, he had daily visits from Dr. Lester Sauvage, a noted pioneer in bypass surgery who also has a strong belief in the spiritual dimension of healing.
While recuperation went well in general, Chong did experience two side effects from the surgery which have fueled rumors that he has not made a full recovery. First off, his vision was blurry, and he could not drive for a few weeks after the operation. Hale says the blurry vision is a side effect of medication. "There is no indication there was a stroke and it's cleared up nicely." A second side effect was a temporary memory loss. Chong says he went to a meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, a hotbed of his political allies, and he failed to remember many people's names. Hale says a temporary memory lapse after the surgery is "pretty common," and is either related to medication or "things that happen with oxygen circulation to the brain" during surgery. Hale was emphatic that there was no brain damage and Chong's memory has returned to normal. "That doesn't mean I remember everybody," Chong jokes.
Hale says Chong's "exercise capacity is normal. He can campaign as vigorously as he could before his heart problems." If elected, Hale says, "I would expect him to serve his term without any cardiac problems." The doctor laughs and adds, "We can't give him a guarantee of immortality, however."
That's probably what it would take to make the issue disappear. Cathy Allen, a political consultant critical of Chong, believes his age, 73, and health will prey on voters' minds.
Allen acknowledges Chong is a lock in this September's primary because of name recognition. But she believes things could turn around in November's general election. "Watch out for intense scrutiny," she warns.
Allen admits in the polite world of Seattle politics, no candidate would dare raise the issue of Charlie's health and age directly. "There are 10 different ways to get there" however, she observes. His opponents will say, "'He's out of step. He's out of touch. We need fresh ideas, new energy.' All of those things bring out: Is he really fit?" Allen predicts with some fairly simple campaign strategies by his opponents, Charlie's health "might be something people think about when they go into the ballot booth."
What Allen doesn't acknowledge is that the health issue also energizes Chong's base. As a populist, Charlie depends on his supporters being mad as hell. If they perceive "the media and political elite," to use Chong's words, as beating up on their leader unfairly about his health, their ire will rise. His supporters' anger can translate into more energy, more volunteers, and better voter turnout, if handled by a skillful campaign manager.
That's where Matt Fox, the hell-raiser with the golden electoral touch, comes in. Fox managed Chong's successful council run in 1996 but did not manage 1997's lackluster mayoral effort. He will try to use the health issue to his advantage since he can't get rid of it. The first fund-raising letter, which devotes a paragraph to the candidate's health, is yielding better and quicker results—upwards of $10,000—than expected.
Fox jokes, "I suggested [Charlie] go out and chop wood ࠬa Reagan, but it's not his style." Fox says Chong's tell-all approach to his heart bypass may not be "politically expedient," but claims when people see Chong on the stump looking healthy and rested, "it will speak for itself."
And there's no doubt that Charlie will keep speaking for himself, railing against the downtown establishment, Sound Transit's plan for surface light rail, a $200 million new city hall, Schell's "scheme to possibly privatize public parks," and much, much more. While spin doctors will continue to raise questions about Charlie's circulation, there's no doubt pure magma is coursing through his veins.