Del. Joannou isn't afraid to take center stage when he's inspired: Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk VA, 3/5/07

By Harry Minium

The sponsors of legislation to rewrite the state's eminent domain law shook hands exuberantly in a corridor during the final hours of the 2007 General Assembly, after their bill passed both houses by wide margins.

While two of the state lawmakers pronounced their triumph before reporters, Del. Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, arguably the major force behind the legislation, sat alone at his desk on the House floor, quietly reading. He was content to let others drink in the accolades.

Such was not the case a year ago, when Joannou stood on the House floor and almost single-handedly stopped a bill that would have allowed housing authorities to condemn homes and other properties to make way for new hotels or shopping centers.

Quoting Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Joannou thundered before a silent House, "When it comes to inalienable rights, there can be no compromise!"

Del. Robert Bell from Albemarle County and other conservative Republicans were stunned, but they concluded that Joannou was right. Thus began the movement that culminated with sweeping new eminent domain legislation.

"Johnny is not afraid to stand up and say what he believes, even if most of the members of his party or most members of the House don't agree with him," Bell said. "His speech last year made us all sit back and think. He is the one who got this ball rolling on eminent domain."

Though the legislation that Joannou proposed last year was not passed, he began meeting with Republican legislators shortly after the formal session ended.

Put your name on the bill, the Portsmouth Democrat was told. No, he replied. This is a Republican legislature and it needs to be a Republican proposal.

Longtime Richmond Democratic Del. Franklin Hall said that in spite of his conservative principles, Joannou fits the Democratic Party.

Hall noted Joannou supports an increase in the minimum wage, believes unions should be protected and was an early advocate of civil rights.

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said Joannou's philosophy was shaped by his upbringing in Portsmouth. He was raised by Greek parents who came to the United States in the early 20th century. His father was born into a family of 12 siblings, and only four survived into adulthood.

"Johnny is all about protecting the common man," Griffith said. "That's his eminent domain position. It's probably also the root of his position on taxes. The people he grew up with aren't wealthy, they didn't have a lot, so he wants to protect them.

"When he talks about immigration, he talks about how his dad immigrated to this country. He feels like people ought to obey the rules like his dad did," he said.

The day before the General Assembly session ended, the 66-year-old Joannou broke into tears as he recounted his parents' struggle, opening a restaurant in Portsmouth, and sending their only son to Virginia Tech and law school at the University of Richmond.

"In my early years, I learned the only way to get something done was to work hard and try my best," said Joannou, who was raised in a flat next door to the Commodore Theatre. "Even though I didn't have a lot of material things, I was fortunate. I had my mom and dad, and they loved me a lot."

Joannou has worked behind the scenes to help craft everyman legislation that, among other things, restricts government from taking well-maintained homes in redevelopment areas and hinders it from taking even poorly maintained housing.

That has done little to endear Joannou to housing authorities or city councils in Portsmouth and Norfolk, which he represents. Some city officials say the bill, if signed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, will make rebuilding their urban cores more difficult.

Being unpopular among the elected elite is nothing new for Joannou.

He has opposed new taxes for transportation, the imposition of tolls on bridge-tunnels, and has been critical of the Portsmouth City Council for not doing more to cut real estate tax rates in the face of soaring assessments. He also angered some in his party for his approval of gun rights and opposition to aiding illegal immigrants.

That's OK, he says. He's not in Richmond to represent the business community or his party. He's there to represent the people back home, many of whom struggle financially.

As a budget conferee, he has garnered the respect and admiration of Republicans, as well as millions of dollars for Portsmouth. The budget just agreed upon includes $40 million to move rail lines out of Portsmouth neighborhoods, $10 million to begin planning a new state terminal at Craney Island, and $1 million to help compensate Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News for road damage from truck traffic from the port.

"Our party happens to be in the minority," he said. "That means you have to reach across the aisle to get the votes to do something good for your area."

Even so, he is not above challenging the Republican establishment. Many legislators agree that the ugliest hour of the 2007 assembly came when Joannou and Del. Kenneth Melvin, D-Portsmouth, pleaded with the House not to re-elect Portsmouth Circuit Judge Dean W. Sword Jr.

Joannou said reappointing Sword will "hurt working people."

"Dean is a person of integrity," Joannou said during an interview in his office. "Off the bench, he's a nice guy. I like him as a human being. But I feel like I have a responsibility to the people I represent, and when I think something is not right, that it ought to change. And I don't feel like he's treated people fairly in his court."

Hall, the Richmond Democrat, said what Joannou did in challenging Sword "took enormous courage. Obviously, that wasn't something he did lightly, for an attorney to stand up and criticize a judge.

"He felt strongly about it, and that's what I like about the guy. You can count on him to stand up and tell it like it is."

Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk VA: http://content.hamptonroads.com