An Education in the Trenches | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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An Education in the Trenches

Charles Edwards turns his years inside the Daley administration into an authoritative first novel.

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It's an old saw in local politics that every publicist in City Hall has an unfinished novel in a desk drawer. Charles Edwards is unusual in that he finished his.

America's First is a just-published potboiler about the first black man to become president that also takes on the mob's pervasive influence on national politics and the self-serving hypocrisies of the government's war on drugs. How does a 31-year-old flack for the city's Department of Revenue know so much about this stuff? "I read a lot," Edwards says. "I ask a lot of questions, and I listen when people answer. I like to think that I'm a quick learner and that my education is never complete."

He says most of what he knows about the mob comes from the people he met and the things he saw growing up in Queens. He graduated from high school in 1987, kicked around New York City for four years, and came to Chicago in 1991. "I met a girl from Chicago, came to visit her, and fell in love with her city."

Edwards settled in Uptown--"It reminds me of New York with all the diversity"--and enrolled in Columbia College as a journalism student. "My start in politics came from a notice I saw on a bulletin board at Columbia," he says. "They were looking for interns to work in City Hall. I called and wound up being interviewed by Jim Williams, who was then Mayor Daley's chief press spokesman. I remember Jim telling me, 'I've seen people come and go. Some make a name for themselves, and some just sort of leave.' I said, 'Jim, I'll never let you down.' He took me on and I've been here ever since."

Williams gave him the job of answering telephones for a few months, then put him in charge of clipping the daily papers. "I was young and hungry and eager to learn," Edwards says. "This was a dream job. I'd come to work at 5:30 in the morning and start reading the papers. I read the Defender, the Southtown, the Daily Herald, the Sun-Times, the Tribune. If there was an article about Mayor Daley--or any city issue--I'd clip it. All those articles were put together--we called it the 'Daley Daily'--and got sent to department heads and aldermen. That's how my education in city politics started--by reading the papers. Let me tell you something, you can learn a lot that way.

"Back then I was reading everything about Chicago politics. The first book I read was Mike Royko's Boss. It's a great book to get your basic understanding, but it's not the bible. Matter of fact, there is no bible to Chicago politics. You have to read all the books to get an accurate picture, and even then you just have the author's version. To understand Chicago politics you have to be on the inside watching people maneuver. You have to know who the key players are. And you have to know how to distinguish between appearance and reality, because sometimes the people who appear to be key aren't key. I'll give you a story. There was an alderman who called the pressroom one day in the morning. I took the call because there was no one else around. He was looking for information because he had read in Sneed's column that he was going to be out of a job. He was getting demoted--they were moving him somewhere else, and he didn't even know. Someone leaked it to the papers, and that's how he found out. They didn't even think he was worth telling first."

Edwards quickly established a base in the press office as reporters, supervisors, and colleagues discovered that he was engaging and easy to talk to. One early friend was Tim Degnan, one of Daley's top advisers and closest friends (he has since retired). It might seem odd that the two would get along so well, since Edwards was a young black man from New York City and Degnan was a white southwest-sider who'd never been out front on civil rights. But as Edwards was quickly learning, surface impressions are often misleading in Chicago politics.

"Me and Degnan were always the first in the office each day," says Edwards. "His office was not far from mine, and we'd chat. At first we talked mostly about sports. We're both huge basketball fans. I love the Knicks, and he loves the Bulls--in those days he had the upper hand. But then we started talking politics. I'm not going to tell you what he told me, 'cause I'm a man who can keep a confidence. But I'll tell you this--he taught me a lot."

By 1995 Edwards had graduated from Columbia and was working full-time in the pressroom. He'd decided that the time had come to launch his own campaign, so in the spring of '96 he ran for 46th Ward Democratic committeeman.

Like most political matters in the 46th Ward, Edwards's campaign is shrouded in mystery and rumor. According to some versions, it was a piece of subterfuge masterminded by Degnan and other City Hall operatives to siphon votes from restaurateur Sam Toia, who's allied with anti-Daley alderman Helen Shiller, and to guarantee victory for Sandra Reed, the pro-Daley candidate. Not so, says Edwards, pointing out that he met with Toia shortly after announcing, that they became tight friends, that Toia eventually dropped out of the race and supported him. And that in the ensuing campaign Edwards wound up working with such longtime Shiller strategists as George Atkins. In short, Edwards wanted to win. And even after he lost he sort of won, given all the new friends and allies he'd made. He may be the only politico in Chicago who counts both Degnan and Atkins among his close friends.

"George and Tim are cut from the same cloth--they're both low-key, backroom individuals who know what it takes to win elections," says Edwards. "I learned a lot from George. I also learned a lot from Sam Toia. I consider Sam my mentor. He picked up where Degnan left off. I'm a young black guy new to town--who's going to want to meet with me? Well, Sam took me around. Sam introduced me to a lot of different people. Put it this way--Tim taught me how to campaign, Sam taught me how to schmooze, and George taught me all about counting votes. I consider it an education by the masters."

Edwards wound up losing to Reed by a few hundred votes. In the aftermath he decided to write his novel. "I went down to Florida to rest and relax and rejuvenate myself, and I happened to buy a book called The Man," he says. "It's by Irving Wallace, and it's all about a black man becoming president. I was fascinated by it. Wallace is an excellent writer. When I got back I thought I'd want to do a remake of this book."

In the spring of 1996 he began to write. Three years later--by which time he'd been promoted to fill a vacancy as chief spokesman for the revenue department--he finished. "I wanted to update the concept, so to speak--I wanted to bring in a mob family and the war on drugs," he says. "It's hard work. I had to do a lot of research. And it's tough discipline to write. You just have to stay at it."

Almost as hard was finding a publisher. He wrote dozens of proposal letters to mainstream publishers without even a nibble of interest. Eventually he found his way to Sekou Tafari and Prizgar Gonzalez, a couple of Trinidadians who own Frontline Books, a small publishing company housed in a storefront at 75th and Cottage Grove.

Tafari and Gonzalez were a perfect match for Edwards. Love--a couple of Chicago women who'd been vacationing in Trinidad--brought them to Chicago. "We're well educated, and we love to read," says Gonzalez, adding, "There are other Trinidadians in publishing--book distributors are the Trinidadian Mafia."

Gonzalez and Tafari have been on the south side for eight years. "It's the art of publishing in the ghetto," says Gonzalez. "Outside on the street there's all sorts of chaos--there's winos and gangbangers and all kinds of madness. Inside it's a literary renaissance. We like to think that we sort of tame this notorious neighborhood. One of the biggest gangbangers came in and bought a book. He bought As Man Thinketh by James Allen. That's a book about thought and character and motivation and vision and ideals and the health of the body and mind."

The first few books Frontline published were about Rastafarians. "We published the autobiography of Haile Selassie," says Gonzalez. "One of our biggest sellers is Kebra Nagast--that's 'The Glory of Kings.' It's a prebiblical text. That sells like raindrops--we have to publish it all the time." Another big seller is The Pimp's Bible by Alfred "Bilbo" Gholson. "He was a south-side pimp for years. He died recently. It's a remarkable book."

America's First is their first political novel. "Charles brought us the manuscript, and I liked it immediately," says Gonzalez. "He's a nice, new, strong voice, and his research is remarkable--the way he weaves his scholastic study of the war on drugs into the novel is brilliant. You can learn a lot from reading it. Many people live in a democracy, but they're a bit naive about its workings. We're naive about what happens when they close the doors and make their deals."

Edwards says that so far the reaction from other City Hall workers has been understated. The book hasn't received much press attention, so many colleagues probably don't even know he wrote it. "I occupy different worlds," he says. "My world as a writer is different than my City Hall world. I like to keep low-key. That's what it says on my license plate--'low-key.' I'm sure a lot of people will be surprised that I even wrote it."

He's starting to spread the word. "A lot of people told me they can visualize it being a movie. When I was at the book expo at McCormick Place [last month] I gave copies to different agents. They were talking about shopping it around in Hollywood. But it's tough. Hollywood is sort of like Chicago politics. It's all about who you know. In fact, it may even be more vicious. Chicago is more conservative. People are trying to make a living. Out there it's all about protecting your reputation. Even with the gangs it's about protecting your colors and your symbols. Before I'd go out there I'd have to do a lot of studying. That's another scene, another world. It would require a new education."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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