Her partner’s 2006 drowning in the basement of their Madison Valley home threw Charlene Strong into activism. Now she wants to make her own mark.
Charlene Strong came into the Seattle spotlight after one of the darkest nights the city had ever seen.
At the time, Washington state did not recognize domestic partners, so Strong wasn’t allowed into Fleming’s hospital room until relatives granted permission by phone.
That event turned Strong from a designer to an activist overnight.
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One month after Fleming’s death, she testified before a Washington state Senate committee, supporting a bill creating a statewide domestic-partner registry. Strong stood beside Gov. Chris Gregoire as that bill was signed into law.
Strong, 53, became an advocate for equality and was appointed by Gregoire to the Washington State Human Rights Commission, where she serves as chair.
Now, Strong wants to serve the city where her partner died and her life changed. She is running for the Seattle City Council seat being vacated by Councilmember Tim Burgess, who is retiring.
“I have spent the last 10 years advocating, speaking, traveling and listening to diverse stories,” Strong said the other day. “I’m mature enough to know that you listen first, and then you speak. There’s a lot of value in that.”
Strong joins three other people seeking Burgess’ spot: Housing advocate Jon Grant, Seattle-King County NAACP Vice President Sheley Secrest and Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council have all launched campaigns.
Strong believes she has “an ability an amplify people’s stories,” as she did her own.
“And it’s my job to be sure those stories get the consideration of the City Council and the mayor’s office.”
Strong lives in Magnolia with her wife, Courteney Bealko, a physical therapist, and their two children, Etta Jean, 5, and Anders, 2.
Every day, she said, she struggles to explain to her children why people are living in tents all over the city.
“You can’t keep enabling a situation,” she said of the homelessness crisis, which last year counted 10,688 people — 4,505 of them without shelter, a 19 percent increase over 2015.
“Let’s find out why people are here. The plan is to get people out of tents in two years, but that’s two years too long.”
Companies and developers that get tax breaks from the city should do more for the people who live — and struggle to survive — here, she said. Developers could make room — physically and financially — for small businesses.
“So many first-floor units of these new buildings are empty,” Strong said. “Most can’t afford rent. Is there some way we can help?”
She lamented the city’s turning down of federal transportation funding, and wishes leaders had foreseen the city’s population boom.
“Can we catch up? Expedia is moving into a huge campus off of 15th Avenue,” she said. “It seems like we’ve always been behind and reluctant.”
It should be noted that in 2008, Strong sued the city of Seattle in the wake of Fleming’s death, alleging that the city knowingly allowed stormwater and sewage to flow into Madison Valley. The city settled for $2.8 million and installed a memorial marker near the playfields in the Washington Park Arboretum.
Now Strong is ready to make her own mark.
“What I have been able to do, personally and professionally, should not only bring much-needed attention to what happens when we don’t recognize inequality,” she said, “but what it takes to be civically involved, with compassion for people and without judgment.”
Strong has heard from friends who are thinking of leaving Seattle. They can’t afford it. It’s too crowded. It’s not what it once was.
“Even in my darkest moments,” she said, “I’ve never given up on this city. This city put me back together.”