Mitch Van Yahres: Elder statesman-- oak and maple, too

When Mitchell Van Yahres was approached in 1968 by a group of Democrats to run for City Council, he claims, he was probably "their third or fourth choice."

At the time he was working on a low-income housing project at his church, and he worried about abandoning that to run for office. He consulted his priest, who said somewhat prophetically, "You can do a lot more good in City Council," Van Yahres recalls 34 years later, the past 21 spent serving as Charlottesville's delegate in the General Assembly.

Van Yahres sat on City Council when it voted to turn the downtown into a pedestrian mall. Three of the five councilors couldn't vote on the mall because of conflicts of interest, leaving him as one of the two votes for the project. "What a feeling of power," he jokes.

But he's not patting himself on the back for casting the vote that set in motion today's vibrant downtown venue. "It scared the hell out of me at one point because it was going downhill," he admits. "It wasn't working." He firmly believes that construction of the much-maligned Omni Hotel was crucial to the survival of the mall.

Of all the legislation Van Yahres has put his name on over the years, the largest stir was not his support of a hemp resolution, nor of photo red legislation to catch red-light runners.

It was a resolution recognizing Carrie Buck, a young woman who, in 1927, was the first to be sterilized under Virginia's notorious eugenics law. "That created an enormous amount of publicity nationwide," says Van Yahres. "I think it was the newness that the state was taking a leadership role in erasing that stigma."

While Republicans have been jubilant over the November 5 elections, Van Yahres' reaction is subdued: "Sadness. Despair. Shock."

Has it made him consider retirement, like some other Democrats who have seen the Republican sweep as a good time to call it quits? "Every time I have to run again, I think about retiring," says Van Yahres. Certainly there are Dems poised to make a grab for his seat when he does decide to throw in the towel.

As far as whether he's running in the 2003 elections, "I can't announce it because I don't know. After the General Assembly, come see me then," he suggests.

Age: 76

What brought you here? I moved here in 1949 to start the Van Yahres Tree Company.

What's worst about living here? Heat and humidity

Favorite hangout? My vegetable garden

Most overrated virtue? Patriotism when it's limited to flag waving and doesn't include other forms of political participation, like voting.

People would be surprised to know: That I used to be extremely shy.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd be more organized.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? The increase in minority and female participation in city government during my tenure on City Council.

What do people find most annoying about you? I'm cheap. And the rest they don't tell me.

Whom do you admire? Jimmy Carter

Favorite book? The Queen and I by Sue Townsend

What subject causes you to rant? Wastefulness

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? That I'm still alive.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The widespread acceptance of cheating in our schools.

What do you drive? A 1992 Toyota pickup

What's in your car tape player right now? Lindsey Buckingham's Go Insane

 Next journey? Pittsburgh to see my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? It had something to do with my childhood addiction to marbles.

What do you regret? Not knowing my ancestors or their stories.

Favorite comfort food? Raw stewing clams

What's always in your refrigerator? Beer

Must-see TV? West Wing, of course

Favorite cartoon? Road Runner

Describe a perfect day. Cold, rain or snow, a fire in the fireplace, a good book, and a beer.

Walter Mitty fantasy? To be an astronaut building a mall on Mars.

Who'd play you in the movie? Charlton Heston

Most embarrassing moment? When my lightning rod business was hit by lightning and destroyed.

Best advice you ever got? Keep your word.

Favorite bumper sticker? Assume nothing.