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Madison's municipal philosopher: Carl Landsness brings the moderation

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Carl Landsness at city meeting

Donned in (imitation) giraffe ears, Madison activist Carl Landsness addresses a city committee. While others take positions on issues, Landsness urges attention to listening, balance and acting from the heart.

The people who signed up to speak on Item 32 at the Jan. 8 Madison Finance Committee meeting could have been easily divided into two opposing sides for a local version of that old CNN show “Crossfire.”

There were those who lauded the police and thought the city should spend about $580,000 to hire eight more officers and buy three more squad cars. On the other side were critics of the police who argued the city should hold off until a recently released independent review of the department could be fully digested.

Squeezed in among them was Carl Landsness, who had a different take.

Yes, he was “feeling uncomfortable about throwing more money at hiring more police,” but not necessarily because the police were bad.

Rather, he said, hold off “until we challenge we the people to be more part of the solution and owning more part of the problem.”

“What I want for this body and the council (is) to challenge we the people to rise higher, to do more self-examination, self-improvement, self-policing, community policing, selfless service,” he told the committee.

Landsness then tried to give Madison Police Chief Mike Koval a jar of bath salts with essential oils — which he called “my lifeline to sanity when I’m stressed” — and offered to buy every member of the City Council and Madison police force the same.

It’s not uncommon for city councils and other local institutions of American democracy to have their gadflies — regular citizens who show up at every meeting and offer their opinions and criticisms on which housing projects are approved, liquor licenses awarded and budget amendments made.

Often they’re people who have been touched directly by a particular issue. Others have their own agendas — lower taxes, stronger unions, safer streets — and apply them to any meeting agenda item to which they appear relevant.

The 66-year-old Landsness, who prefers to call himself “refired” rather than retired, hasn’t fit comfortably into any of those categories since he started taking a keen interest in local government about four years ago.

At the City Council’s Sept. 5 meeting, donned in a shirt declaring “holy shift,” and with fake giraffe ears on his head and a paper heart in hand, he warned the council and others against “being the outside messiah” in attempting to lift up troubled neighborhoods such as Worthington Park through so-called “place-making” efforts.

“When I put these ears on, I can’t hear the judgments, analyses of the head anymore even if you attack me and call me a name,” he said. “All I can hear is the language of the heart.”

Giraffes, as Landsness is fond of saying, have the biggest hearts of any land animal (although the hearts of African elephants tend to weigh more).

At a council meeting later that month (T-shirt slogan: “uff da”), Landsness said he was worried about the potential for top-down control in a proposal to strengthen the requirement that property owners maintain the terraces near their homes. At a council meeting in October (“holy shift” shirt peeking out of an African dashiki), he said he’d had a change of mind about a proposal to sell liquor at Willy Street Co-op, and now was “willing to experiment.”

At other times, he’s been known to bring stuffed giraffes to the podium, and to wear face paint to make him look like — what else? — a giraffe.

The giraffe theme comes from Marshall Rosenberg, the late founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication and one of several thinkers Landsness calls his “mentors.”

Of course, people who don giraffe ears to talk about serious topics at official government meetings run the risk of being dismissed as kooks.

And while Landsness is up front about having suffered from mental illness — specifically, severe depression — he’s not easy to dismiss.

A Madison native, Landsness was an accomplished student at East High School, class of 1969, and earned degrees in electrical engineering from UW-Madison and Stanford University.

He worked 22 years for Hewlett Packard in California and Oregon where, for a time, a “quiet little technician” worked 30 feet down the hall. His name was Steve Wozniak.”

While he didn’t have any interest in trying to join Wozniak when he left Hewlett Packard to co-found Apple, what Landsness accomplished at HP isn’t too shabby either.

Google his name and you find he was involved in the invention of ink-jet printing and is among the holders of related patents.

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Landsness with giraffe

At city meetings, Madison activist Carl Landsness often invokes giraffes, which have large hearts, in making points about listening to others.

‘Higher purpose’

If Landsness doesn’t have a pet cause, his personal philosophy is pretty consistent: Listen to people with both heart and head, but let the heart be the master; pay attention to all sides; seek balance.

His interest in the messiness of human interaction is relatively recent, though.

“My involvement today in politics and activism — whether it be political, social or environmental activism ... these are realms that I avoided, hugely avoided, for my first 50 years,” he said.

He said he went into engineering because he didn’t want to deal with interpersonal relations and gray areas because “it’s too hard. I wanted black-and-white answers.”

Then came a panic attack, major depression and thoughts of suicide beginning in 1987, triggered by, among other things, a stock market crash, changes at work and in his marriage, and three near-fatal accidents.

“Everything since then has been an attempt to tame that ego and find a higher purpose, perspective for living,” he said.

Hard to pin down

That kind of focus fits in well in a place like Madison, home to the Center for Healthy Minds, mindfulness practices in the public schools, and all manner of yoga.

But if Landsness is another aging Madison hippie, he’s got a pretty strong libertarian streak, even as he shares a birth date — April 22 — with Mayor Paul Soglin; Vladimir Lenin, leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the Russian Communist Party; and Earth Day.

In the wake of a string of fatal police shootings over the last five years, he says he is “very concerned about the tensions between people and police that have gotten into a lot of blame.

“Blaming someone else, feeling better than or arrogant or self-righteous, or a victim — all these things I consider spiritual narco- tics because they have a juicy payoff in the moment,” he said. “They numb the pain of taking ownership of the consequence of our choices, and many people, I’m concerned, never break that addiction.”

At a time when many Madisonians see Republican Gov. Scott Walker as a threat to all they hold dear, Landsness says he’s more concerned with liberals’ response to conservatives than with conservatives themselves.

“I’m very concerned about progressives and liberals claiming the moral high ground and labeling conservatives as bad, wrong, evil, despicable, deplorable,” he said. “I see that as a bigger problem than the positions themselves.”

Making an impact

City officials express affection for Landsness — and some respect.

“The reason he stands out is he does not make personal attacks on anyone,” Soglin said.

Ald. Ledell Zellers, who said she knew Landsness before she joined the council in 2013, called him “thoughtful, sincere and caring” and welcomes “his insights and commitment.”

“No matter the gravity of the issue or the lines that have been drawn, his approach is so unconventional that I can’t help but sit back and smile and draw some inspiration from his authentic attempts to broker peace,” Police Chief Koval said. “In essence, Carl repeatedly tries to be Switzerland in the midst of conflict.”

The city’s longest-serving council member, Mike Verveer, recalled the “pain he was suffering” during a particularly contentious council meeting he had to chair in 2016 because Soglin was out of town and he was the council president.

At the meeting, the council voted to spend up to $400,000 on an outside review of the police department. Two days earlier, Koval had authored a blog post ripping the council for showing little support for a police force he said was being used as a “political punching bag.”

Landsness “provided a helpful respite,” Verveer recalled — an indication of Landsness’ influence given that he wasn’t even there.

He did, however, two days later and in response to the rift between the council and the chief, email the council, the chief and the mayor links on civic dialogue, hypnotherapy, the Japanese martial art Aikido and other resources he felt were “critical to our survival.”

“Most people don’t know where to put me,” Landsness said. “I make it a point to connect with or at least to attempt to connect with and understand all stakeholders and not to debate, demean, destroy but to understand and connect and seek win-win ways to resolve.”

And every now and then, to be a giraffe.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.