"When the Reverend Alvin Edwards shows up for a recent interview, a sky-blue mask is covering his nose and mouth. Visions of a highly contagious virus flashing before her eyes, a reporter asks what's with the mask.
"Pollen," sighs Edwards, his entire face emerging as he settles into a chair at Sloan's Restaurant.
"I'm allergic to pollen. Never was bothered by it before coming to Charlottesville - not in Richmond or anywhere else. The pollen here is really bad." Happily, this seasonal affliction doesn't seem to affect his appetite. Edwards succumbs to the menu description of potato skins - with bacon and cheese - and after saying a brief prayer, he digs into the generous platter.
Except to his congregation at the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Edwards has been an invisible figure since 1996, when he left City Council after eight years including a two-year stint as mayor from 1990 to 1992. However, since May he's re-entered the public spotlight - occupying another pulpit of sorts - as chairman of the City's all-powerful Democratic party.
The last time the pastor merged politics and religion was in 1994, when he stated from his pulpit that he was supporting Emily Couric in her run for the State Senate, over her equally Democratic opponent, Tom Vandever. That two-for-the-price-of-one strategy will have to be retired, however. Even the candidate-endorsement machine known as the Christian Coalition is disentangling church business and state affairs. Last month, the Coalition announced that it would convert to for-profit status after the Internal Revenue Service frowned on its political activities - such as issuing voting guides. Ever mindful of his church's tax-exempt status, Edwards searches for another way, as pastor of a church, to influence people to join the Democratic party.
"One's beliefs," says Edwards, "should influence the way you live and how you relate to people. I would not say that there should be a religion about how one worships God; for me, it's a private matter. But it ought to influence the way we treat other people."
So will Edwards use the Mt. Zion pulpit to endorse the three local Democratic candidates who in the fall will run for the General Assembly from this area: Couric running against Republican Jane Maddux, Mitch Van Yahres running unopposed, and Ed Wayland challenging Paul Harris?
"If I wouldn't lose my tax-exempt status," declares Edwards, "I would do that. It has been the practice of black churches to endorse candidates - it is where we can garner support and control the situation."
And while Edwards believes the Democratic party remains the best option for African-Americans, he harbors no ill will toward two of the area's most prominent black Republicans - newspaper editor Agnes Cross-White and Delegate Paul Harris.
"Philosophically, the parties are different," says Edwards. "African-Americans have perceived that the Democratic party has more sympathy for their needs. Years ago, this was true of the Republican party, but not now."
Is he afraid that Harris and Cross-White may pull African-Americans away from the Democratic party?
Nor does he take issue with Harris' appropriation of the motto "Faith, Family, and Freedom."
"I would not counter it. I agree with those values, and you enhance them by showing people how to get there."
But the tolerance does not cut both ways. Cross-White, editor of the African-American weekly newspaper The Tribune, has little approbation for Edwards. "It would behoove the Democrats," she says, "to consider an individual who has some new and creative solutions - a visionary, rather than [someone who will] continue to recycle failed policies "
Indeed, Edwards' agenda for Democrats over the next year is not exactly earth-shattering: revise the by-laws of the City Democratic Committee, become more involved in the community, and become more involved in the school system's "Book Buddies" remedial reading program.
Anything more electric?
"Well, I will ask Democrats to commit 10-20 more participants to the [Book Buddies] program. And I also promise to recruit 10 more young people to be active in the Democratic party."
Bringing people on board is one of Edwards' self-proclaimed strengths - an asset that he says he brings to the party chairmanship, even if program-wise there isn't much new.
"I think I can bring people together," he says, "and make them feel they have ownership of the City and in the Democratic party. I enjoy working with people, in spite of those who do not agree with me. I allow people to use their skills and talents, and I have learned to let people do what they do best, and then get out of the way."
Others in the Democratic party look to Edwards to strengthen the party's ties to the black community - a bond that can no longer be taken for granted, as the prominence of Cross-White and Harris surely indicates.
Another former mayor, Democrat David Toscano, sees promise in Edwards' new position: "There is no doubt that Alvin will bring young people into the party."
Tom Vandever, former party chairman and one-time Couric rival, concurs. "Alvin is a strong person who will bring strong energy to the position. Also, he has much appeal for the younger generation, and for African-Americans.
"We need new blood in the party," Vandever continues. "There is a new generation of African-American professionals the Democrats have to attract."
Alvin Edwards was born in Joliet, Illinois. He attended Joliet Junior College and went on to receive his B.A. in Biblical Studies at Illinois' Wheaton College. He then came east for a master's degree in divinity at Virginia Union School of Theology. He has been pastor at Mt. Zion since 1981. When he left City Council in 1996, one reason he gave for stepping down was his desire to complete his doctorate in education. And he's almost there.
"I'm on chapter four of my dissertation - one more chapter to go!" he announces gleefully.
Yet compared to this list of accomplishments, his self-described most important contributions during his eight years in public office seem quite humble. "One, Youth Day at Charlottesville High School," Edwards begins, listing his greatest moments on City Council, "when the government class had a mock City Council election. And two, the time at Venable's summer school when I was invited to speak. I told the kids at Venable that if they came to school every day, I would give them a pizza party. As it turned out, [retired bank president] Hovey Dabney paid for the party - it was held at the Omni, and Domino's provided the pizza."
Edwards pauses, as if musing on an aspect of the event. "I told the kids to say 'I can,' instead of 'I can't,' but the press didn't cover it at all. Good things are not covered, only the negative ones."
The press certainly looked on with interest in August, 1994 when Edwards was City Council's sole opposing vote on the proposed vehicular crossing of the Downtown Mall at Second Street. Developer Lee Danielson was planning what became his lavish Charlottesville Ice Park and Regal Cinema and wanted to open a small stretch of the Mall to traffic.
Edwards stated that he thought the Mall needed a more comprehensive approach to be successful. He preferred examining the impact of two-way traffic on Water Street and possibly converting Market Street to two-way before approving Danielson's Mall crossing.
Another high-profile controversy was the Ridge Street bridge over the CSX train tracks. Railroad authorities wanted to build it so high that it would block the front door of Edwards' church.
"The planning stage [for the bridge change] was started in 1988," Edwards recalls, "and I dropped out of the City Council race for a month. Frank Buck was mayor at the time, and he felt that the plans for raising the bridge could not be changed. They just wouldn't spend time talking until I said that I was putting my church first - ahead of running for City Council."
At this point, Edwards laughs triumphantly: "Things changed then!"
Tom Hill, a Republican who ran for City Council in 1992, lauds Edwards for his sensitivity to economic issues affecting the low-income black community. "Most of the members of the City Council represent the elite power structure, and show a contempt for those who are not part of it," says Hill. "I am hopeful that Edwards' chairmanship will bring a more representative flavor to nominees for council, as well as to boards and commissions."
Hill says Edwards was one of the few Democrats in the early 1990s who understood Hill's pet issue: natural gas. "At a time when natural gas prices were hitting record lows," says Hill, "people here were paying record high prices. Edwards was aware of this, as well as of the disenfranchisement of ordinary working people. I hope that his appointment will be good for the black community. Right now, no one on Council represents Ridge Street."
Alvin Edwards is a fiery preacher. On a typical Sunday morning at Mt. Zion the congregation speaks as one: "Amen!" they shout, affirming Edwards' words, "Tell it!" and "Yes!" As his parishioners take strength from his words, he obviously absorbs sustenance from their enthusiastic responses. But in his political life, Edwards is soft-spoken. As a councilman, his tenure was marked by a - shall we say - certain reserve. In other words, he didn't talk much. He was kind of laid back.
But his views on the political process are sharp. Does he, for instance, think there's any value to having a bipartisan City Council? His answer is surprising: "Yes." Why? "Because of the ideological differences. Where there is no diversity of opinion, there is no progress. Something has to challenge people to 'get off the dime.' Controversy forces you to think."
So does he think Charlottesville will ever have a not-totally Democratic council? That laugh again: "Not as long as the Democrats keep on doing a good job!"
Edwards is told of Tom Hill's complimentary comments about his representation of poor folks. Does he feel that the current City Council represents the residents of, say, Ridge Street?
"I think that the Council takes into consideration everyone's opinions. For me to represent people I have to weigh what people have said. I voted for garbage stickers because people said they wanted them, even though I was against it. You have to always listen to people. There should be no closed doors when they are speaking."
With the potato skins coming to an end, a reporter asks Edwards whether there is anything else he would like to talk about. He responds immediately: "My children. I have four and one ward. I appreciate their support and their love. They are the light of my life, and my wife is my favorite singer when accompanied by [Mount Zion organist] Jonathan Spivey!"
And with that - and a final wave - Alvin Edwards, avowed Democrat, puts
on his protective mask and walks out into one of Charlottesville's truly
bipartisan, equal-access-opportunities: the right to inhale pollen-laden
air." (Barbara Rich, C-VILLE Weekly, July 20 - 26, 1999)