Charles Rolland, a longtime political activist and former chairman of the Washington state Democratic Party, died Monday.
Leaders of the state Democratic Party and Seattle political circles are mourning the sudden loss this week of former party chairman Charles Rolland, a longtime political activist who played a key role in electing Norm Rice as Seattle’s first African-American mayor.
Mr. Rolland died Monday after collapsing between racquetball games at the downtown Seattle YMCA, according to family and friends. He was 60.
Mr. Rolland first rose to prominence in local Democratic politics when he became state director for the 1988 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who made a strong showing in Washington’s caucuses.
He was tapped later that year to help manage the mayoral campaign for Rice, then a Seattle city councilman. After Rice’s resounding 1989 win, he hired Mr. Rolland as a deputy mayor. Mr. Rolland frequently acted as a “social conscience” for Rice’s administration, advocating for poor and minority communities, Rice recalled.
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“Charles always had a love of politics and community engagement. He was always in the forefront of trying to bring about social change,” said Rice. “I’ll miss him dearly.”
In 1993, Mr. Rolland was elected chairman of the state Democratic Party, becoming the first African American to head either major party in the state. He won through old-fashioned face-to-face politicking, driving an estimated 8,000 miles across the state to woo the 176 party officials eligible to vote.
Two years later, Mr. Rolland was ousted after Democrats suffered major defeats in the 1994 elections. Though that was largely the result of a national Republican wave, Mr. Rolland came under fire from other party leaders, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, for lagging in fundraising and organization.
Paul Berendt, who defeated Mr. Rolland for state party chairman, credited his old rival’s important role in the history of the state party. The Jackson campaign, and its Rainbow Coalition, “brought thousands of new people into the Democratic Party — and he was the leader of that.”
“One of the things I learned when I was chair … was that there was a deep, deep well of affection in the party for him,” Berendt said.
The current state Democratic Party chairman, Dwight Pelz, said Mr. Rolland had “a tremendous breadth in terms of his career and his influence.”
Mr. Rolland ran for political office himself in 2000, losing in the Democratic primary in the race for secretary of state.
In recent years, Mr. Rolland worked as a business and political consultant, and was a partner in a bail-bonds business for a while. He frequently did advocacy work for underrepresented communities trying to win more political influence or government contracts.
“He was a true entrepreneur,” said his friend and former business partner Paul Tolliver, who described Mr. Rolland as a “gentle giant” who was a tough negotiator but cared about helping people.
Although he was a large man, friends and family said there had been no indication Mr. Rolland was in poor health. He played racquetball regularly at the YMCA and had long abstained from meat. But he did eat fish and was known for his homemade smoked salmon, among other recipes.
Born into poverty in Chicago, Mr. Rolland graduated from Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska and moved to Seattle in the 1970s to study business at the University of Washington. It was here that he met his wife of more than 30 years, Jacquelyn Moscou.
Moscou, an actress and artistic director at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, said Mr. Rolland was “the mom in our family — he made it possible for me to be who I am.”
While she traveled and worked late, Mr. Rolland baked the chocolate-chip cookies, went to the PTA meetings and created the photo collages for the family’s holiday cards.
“He never missed anything with the kids,” she said.
Mr. Rolland also enjoyed spending time with other kids in the community, coaching youth football and volunteering as a Little League umpire.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Rolland is survived by a daughter, Danielle Moscou-Rolland, of Florence, Italy; and two sons, Marcus Rolland, of Seattle, and Sekou Rolland, of Everett.
A memorial service has been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. March 23 at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1634 19th Ave., Seattle. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to First Place School, P.O. Box 22536, Seattle, WA 98122.
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.