Wen's Interviews - Charles Royer

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Charles Royer: Journalist, Educator, Mayor Who Welcomed Deng Xiaoping to Seattle     (May 20, 2011)

Mayor Charley in true Seattle spirit.

Charles Royer, the only three-term mayor (1978-89) Seattle has ever had, is just Charley to his friends. Mayor Charley, the way I address him, accomplished a great deal for Seattle, most notably bringing it the fame as the "Most Livable City." But to me, his more important accomplishment was in developing China relations. Building on the tradition of Washington's late Sens. Magnuson and Jackson, Mayor Charley made major headways in the city's relations with China, especially those of the Seattle-Chongqing sister cities.

But Mayor Charley is much, much more than mayor. Did you know he won a baseball scholarship in college? Did you know he was battle-ready to go to Cuba in 1962? Did you know he joked with mayor of Shanghai in 1979? And did you know he brought dinosaur bones from Chongqing to Seattle?

To mark the 28th anniversary of the Seattle-Chonqing sister city relations, I contacted Mayor Charley for an interview. Still busy with The Royer Group of his own and several other public policy organizations, he agreed. Lucky me.

Our interview took place outside a cafe in his favorite neighborhood Pioneer Square. Here are the highlights of my interview of Mayor Charley on May 9, 2011, in three parts:


 Part 1. Before Becoming Mayor

--Growing up in Portland

Wen: So you grew up in Portland, OR. Is Portland very similar to Seattle?

Charley: Yes. Portland is very much like Seattle. I never thought I would like Seattle. I was born and raised in Oregon. Went to high school in Oregon City, just outside of Portland. My first trip to Seattle was when I was a TV reporter and I was doing a documentary on the street alcoholic. This was in 1968 and there was a case in the Supreme Court, Powell v. Texas. Basically what the Supreme Court did was to refuse to decriminalize public drunkenness. So I lived on Portland's Skid Row, Portland's Pioneer Square, for about a month. With a hidden camera, I interviewed these people that lived on the street. It turned out to be really a great story. In order to run it, I had to get permission of some of the people I had interviewed. Of course they were long gone. One of them I knew was in Seattle, so I came to Seattle, to Pioneer Square and I walked around till I found him and I got his signature.

Wen: The same Pioneer Square?

Charley: Yes, right here. I found him down at the Union Gospel Mission. So Portland is very much like Seattle that it has a Skid Row and all that stuff. But Seattle I feel is a more cosmopolitan place, always has been, with more diversity, kind of gritty and more urban feel to it than Portland.

--From college to military

Wen: You won a baseball scholarship at college, Portland State. Did you ever want to become a professional baseball player?

Charley: Yes. I did. I was very good in high school, but not very good in college. And I played baseball when I was older. But, like the Mariners today, I couldn't hit.

Wen: You were drafted in 1961. In 1961, 62, there were already American troops in Vietnam.

Charley: Just a few.

Wen: So there was no possibility that you could have been sent to Vietnam.

Charley: No. I went to a tank division. I was an administrative assistant to a colonel. So I did mostly office work. I had skills they needed. So instead of being in the infantry, I wrote for the army newspaper, at Fort Hood, Texas.

Wen: And in Georgia, too.

Charley: Yes, during the Cuban Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened while I was in the Army. We all got dressed up in our battle gear and went to Georgia and we were going to go down to Florida, get on boats and go to Cuba.

Wen: That's a possibility that you could go to Cuba.

Charley: But it turned out they settled it... that's when I met President Kennedy. He came to us in Georgia, thanked our division for mobilizing to go to Cuba even though we didn't go.

Wen: You studied journalism at Portland State?

Charley: I was at Portland State for only two years and I went into the Army. When I came out, I went to the University of Oregon. That's where I got my journalism degree.

--TV journalist

Wen: You graduated in 1966. That year, in China, there was the notorious Cultural Revolution. Did you hear anything about it at the time?

Charley: In the mid to late 60s, I read about it and thought it was pretty strange. And I heard a lot about it when I went in 1979, of course.

Wen: You were news analyst at King TV.

Charley: I started at King TV in 1970.

Wen: In 1972, when Nixon visited China, did you cover it for King TV? Did you write a commentary? Do you remember anything? Was it big news?

Charley: Yes. It was seen as a very brave foreign policy move. But he was criticized for it because there were still people, you know, this was still the Cold War, who thought it was not a good move. I don't remember what I wrote about it. But I have all my commentary somewhere.

 Part 2. Being Mayor

--Deng had a cold

Wen: You were mayor in 1978. In 79, in Feb., Deng Xiaoping came to Seattle. You welcomed him at Boeing Field. What do you remember from that visit?

Charley: My brother was with me at that time in the office. He was deputy mayor. So he kind of headed up the effort to make the arrangements for the visit. He worked with what's his name on the China Relations Council.

Wen: Bob Kapp.

Charley: Bob Kapp, yeah. I remember my brother asked someone on the Chinese side what Deng would like for dinner. The guy said best steak in town.

Wen: There was a public luncheon next day.

Charley: This was a private dinner at Canlis Restaurant. Deng had a cold and he couldn't come.

Wen: He couldn't come to next day's breakfast, either.

--To China in 1979

Wen: Then there was Liu Lin Hai the ship from China. You had a lot of China activities that year. You had Deng, you had Liu Lin Hai, you had your trip. That's a lot.

Charley: Yes I went to China only seven years after Nixon did. It was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It was a very different place than it is today. Very different.

Wen: You said it was ten mayors? How did you get picked to go? Did you apply for it?

Charley: I think maybe some people in the state lobbied the Conference of Mayors to get me on the trip. Seattle then and Washington State were already thinking we needed to be in on the ground floor for this relationship.

Wen: That's right. China Council was formed that year. Seattle and Washington State were pretty active.

--Shanghai mayor and jail

Wen: So where did you go on this trip?

Charley: We went to 14 cities. Beijing, Shanghai... In Shanghai, perhaps the most memorable political figure was the mayor of Shanghai, who had a position in the national government. He was pretty old, probably in his 70s. That's the famous story where people in the State Dept. had suggested that we not use our sense of humor in China because of translation difficulties. I was sitting next to this mayor. We had been to one of the Shanghai jails earlier in the day and had seen the terrible conditions.

Wen: Why did you go to see the jail?

Charley: I think somebody on the trip wanted to see a corrections facility. So they took us to a jail. It was really awful. So I sat next to the mayor of Shanghai. He was asking about our trip, what we had seen that was interesting. So I told him about our trip to the jail. He acknowledged the conditions were pretty bad. Then I asked him how long he had been mayor, just trying to make conversation. He said about a year. I ask him, "What did you do before you were mayor?" He said, "I was in jail." He was in the jail. He was one of the Cultural Revolution victims. The whole table got really quiet, because you know, you just could see it, this elegant seventy-year-old man in that jail... I said to him, well, you know in our country we do it differently. First you are mayor, then you go to jail.

Wen: That was a good one. Did he get it?

Charley: He just laughed. He thought it was so funny. He was a very articulate and elegant gentleman. He said, now I have been mayor for a year, jail doesn't seem so bad.

--Chongqing became sister

Wen: Washington State and Sichuan Province became sister states in 1982. That I know. It was mostly the work of Bob Kapp who worked on it. But how did Seattle and Chongqing become sisters? Do you remember?

Charley: We wanted to be involved with a city in the same province. We thought it made sense. Chongqing was probably the most important city in that province. I don't really know exactly how Chongqing was settled on. It was a principal city, a port city, all those things had a bearing on it. And they were willing, too.

Wen: It was logical. Now the important part. June 1983, Chongqing mayor Yu Hanqing, a six-member delegation, came here. You met them at SeaTac and you signed the sister city agreement with Mr. Yu. (Reading from a newspaper clipping) "Mayor Yu and Mayor Royer and Mrs. Williams signed the agreement today." That was June 3, 1983. Can you tell us about the visit and the signing?

Charley: Again we had events, dinners, and we had some working sessions I remember where we talked about specific exchanges we could do, specific things we could work on together. We had a kind of work program for carrying out the commitments in the agreement.

--Garden idea

Wen: Garden came later?

Charley: That's right. We didn't talk about the garden until I went over. So I went in 86. We came up with the garden idea while there.

Wen: Someone just suggested?

Charley: We visited Chinese gardens on the trip. Actually Bill Stafford thought that would be a very symbolic, very good and easy, relatively easy, thing to do. But of course it wasn't.

Wen: No. It's 25 years now.

Charley: We had earlier built a park, called Peace Park, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as part of our sister city relationship with Tashkent. It all became caught up at the end of the Cold War. It was kind of all about peace, reconciliation, developing relationships with these people we'd been afraid would bomb us into oblivion.

Wen: So the park idea...

Charley: ...translated into the Chinese garden idea.

--Chinasaurs and pandas

Wen: That was in 1986?

Charley: We didn't really get serious or get serious ideas until we got there in 86. That's when we also got the idea for the dinosaur exhibit. That was a major one, started the relationship with the Burke Museum which still goes on today, between Burke Museum and China.

Wen: Dinosaur exhibit?

Charley: Chongqing turned out to have some of the best collections of dinosaur skeletons of any place in the world.

Wen: Yes in Sichuan, a city called Zigong. They had dinosaur sites there.

Charley: The Chinese had toured some of these bones in Europe, but never in the United States. I think this was the first Chinese dinosaur exhibit in the United States.

Wen: This was after 1986?

Charley: Before 89, as I was still in office.

Wen: Do you remember what else you did in Chongqing in 86?

Charley: At some point, we went to the zoo of Chongqing. That might have been... I went again in 89. That was my last trip to China. We went to the zoo to check on the panda... (Woodland Park) Zoo of course wanted a panda.

Wen: It was 86. I saw a photo of you with a panda.

Charley: A baby. It was clawing my hand...

Wen: So did you get a panda over here?

Charley: No. The Chinese wanted too much money.

Wen: They wanted the money to fund the reserve, research and everything. Maybe we should try again.

Charley: But we got something. Oh, monkeys.

--Value of sister cities

Wen: When you signed Seattle-Chongqing, we had 9 sister cities. Now we have 21. There was once a view critical of them. A piece in the Seattle P-I had this title, "Seattle's Thirst for Sister Cities Dilutes Program's Value." What do you think of sister cities? Do you think they are valuable?

Charley: We are a bigger and more diverse city, even than we were in the 1970s. So I think the number of sister cities may have reflected the kind of diverse places that our people who live here come from. So I think it's appropriate. It wouldn't be appropriate if we didn't have some strong associations that keep these things active, you know working together on programming and doing exchanges and all that stuff. As far as I can tell, I think all our sister city committees are in pretty good shape. They still have strong committees. They have good volunteer support. I think that's the test, it's not the numbers. So I think the number is not as important as the activity and commitment.

Wen: You know there is a difference when we talk about sister cities. In China, they are usually run or administered by the government, their foreign affairs office. Here, for instance, Seattle-Chongqing association, I am a board member, we are just volunteers. What about other countries?

Charley: I remember Nantes, France, there were a lot of volunteers. Bergen, Norway, they had a volunteer committee. But they also got sizable support from the government, even to fund travel and staff time. I think it's very different in the rest of the world than in the United States.

Wen: You did give a very strong push from the government, from mayor's office, at the beginning.

Charley: Yes. For us, if we were going to be an international city, a big port city, we had to have friends like the Chinese and all these other countries. So I thought it was part of stimulating economic activity and trade, a way for our business people to make connections with their counterparts with these other places for trade and investment purposes.

 Part 3. Life Beyond Mayor

--Directing Harvard school

Wen: When you were director of the Institute of Politics, from 1990-95, at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, you said you had many good forums, from Gorbachev to Tip O'Neill. Did you have any memorable China programs or speakers?

Charley: You know, we really didn't, because it seemed me, when I was there in the 90s, most people were interested in what was going on in the Soviet Union.

Wen: They had glasnost.

--Alaskan Way Viaduct

Wen: Now I am going to ask you this interesting question. You worked on a lot of projects when you were mayor, community health clinics, convention center, bus tunnel, etc. Are you glad that the Alaskan Way Viaduct was not one of them?

Charley: I am. I really am.

Wen: I read that you chair the Central Waterfront Partnership Committee. Why is Alaskan Way Viaduct taking so long?

Charley: Everything takes a lot more time in Seattle because everybody has to be consulted. You know in China you can build a tunnel eight miles long and there is never any public discussion about it. It just gets done. You can flood an entire valley, build a dam in China and, there are no lawsuits, people are just moved and relocated. In this city, if you need to take down a building for a public works project or something, lawsuits, time, environmental impact statements, process, it just takes forever.

Wen: But this project takes longer than any.

Charley: Not really. It's only about ten years. The whole transit, the light rail transit, we started working on that in 1968. We had our first vote on light rail in 1968.

Wen: I remember that federal funds went to Atlanta.

Charley: So it took another 20, almost 30 years before we really built any light rail.

Wen: You don't think the Alaskan Way Viaduct is taking too long? You had a piece in Crosscut, you said that our form of government was taking its time and getting slower.Slower than when you were there. Why is that?

Charley: You know I think it's the ethic, the new ethic that everybody has to be part of the process. So over time law gets made and policy gets made, it extends the length of the process so more people can be heard in more places. People run for office saying I will conduct town hall meetings on everything I do or I won't do anything unless I've got the vote of the people to support what I am doing. It's not only the way people think they have to do things, it has been written into the law, the process has been written into the law, so it's there forever...

Charley: OK we are going to have to go now. Why don't you email me…

Wen: OK. Thank you mayor...

(Our interview ended here before I finished all the questions, because Mayor Charley's cute little puppy Coco refused to stay put any longer by our table. I realized that the interview went on long enough.)