Landau musters progressive backers

by Jordan Green

“I believe in people who keep on working, even though things may not shine brightly for them at first,” former Greensboro Mayor Carolyn Allen told the crowd assembled at Coffee at the Summit on Aug. 16. “He has shown up at city council meetings. That’s more than you can say about a lot of the candidates.”

Joel Landau, a cooperative grocery manager making his second bid for city council, stood beside her dressed in a gray suit that made a striking contrast to his round wire-rim glasses and light moustache. Milling around with the roughly 35 supporters, he’d worn a smile that was both self-conscious and overflowing with gratification. The soft-spoken aspiring city pol tends to converse in a deliberate manner that reveals a strong grasp of detail.

Landau’s challenge has been to set himself apart in a crowded field of 13 at-large candidates vying for three seats that includes one incumbent and two heavily funded veteran officeholders. Seven weeks out from the primary election, the candidate seems to have already made distinct impression. As of July 31, the Landau campaign had raised $3,075, mostly in contributions ranging from $25 to $100. This time around in just the first reporting period he’s raised almost three quarters of his total fundraising for the entire 2005 campaign.

He also has attracted some conspicuous backers, including environmental activist Gay Cheney, who cut a check for $100 last month; BJ Gerald-Covington, a stylish African-American woman from Philadelphia who heads Guilford County’s Democratic Women; Ossie Edwards, first vice chair of the state Senior Democrats; and Jay Ovittore, who leads the county’s Young Democrats. But the real luminary was mayoral candidate Yvonne Johnson, who garnered enthusiastic applause when she rose without introduction to speak on Landau’s behalf.

“I’ve never endorsed a candidate, and I won’t endorse a candidate,” she said. “But I support Joel because he’s for the environment, he’s for fairness and justice, and because he will be a great city council member. I’m here because I’m his friend, and I wish him the very best.”

Susan Sassman, a public relations executive who is volunteering her services as a consultant, burnished Landau’s maverick image in her introduction. A manager at Deep Roots Market, Landau has come out in support of a 52 percent citywide minimum wage increase. A member of the city Planning Board, he has advocated for reining in fringe development. Among white candidates he has been a rare supporter of the truth and reconciliation process.

“He’s not at all like the other candidates,” Sassman said. “He’s cut from his own cloth. He’s a progressive guy, an alternative kind of guy. He’s a warm person.”

Landau accepted the mantle of reformer.

“As I talk with people and listen to their concerns, a lot of people feel that government doesn’t represent them, that private interests make the decisions,” he said. “I’ll just tell you I’m not one of those private interests. I’ll represent the people.”

When his talk zoomed in on specifics, for the most part Landau steered towards politically neutral ground, highlighting support for neighborhoods, his experience running a small business and his advocacy for transparent government.

“I’m glad to say that even though I’m not on council now I have had some positive impact,” he said. “After I talked to the city council, the manager got some new software so that now all the loans and grants are listed on the agenda, so you can see how your tax dollars are being spent.”

Part of Landau’s strategy has been to aggressively engage Greensboro’s various media outlets and demand coverage to challenge the conventional journalistic practice of focusing resources on candidates who already have strong name recognition and proven fundraising ability. He described his run as a “grassroots campaign” that will include four additional receptions, and will rely as much on supporters’ word-of-mouth publicity as heavy advertising spending.

As the candidate finished up an interview on the veranda of Coffee at the Summit, Gerald-Covington made her exit.

“All right, baby doll,” she said. “That was a very nice affair. Keep the momentum.”

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