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The Mayor of Rome Gets a Surprise Halo

Skeptics predicted that the Holy Year would doom Francesco Rutelli. Instead, his political star has soared.

September 30, 2000|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — When Pope John Paul II invited the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics to a yearlong kickoff of the third Christian millennium, Francesco Rutelli had no choice but to open Rome's unsuitably narrow streets to a crush of visitors.

The mayor's critics gleefully predicted something like the apocalypse. Columnist Francesco Merlo wrote in the newspaper Corriere della Sera in January that the Holy Year would doom the young politician to "living hell and sure defeat."

But three-quarters of the way through the year, this city of 2.7 million people has absorbed 16 million visitors without breaking down. Rutelli has proved such a meticulous host that Italy's ruling center-left coalition anointed him this week as its choice for prime minister in elections next spring against television magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

The 46-year-old mayor's rise to national prominence has suddenly become more interesting to Italians than the Holy Year itself.

Mega-events such as Olympic Games or world's fairs are often so untidy and controversial at home that the host mayor cannot reap much political reward. But Rutelli has displayed a skill Italians don't usually expect of their politicians--organization.

In mid-August, for the peak Holy Year event--the largest youth gathering ever held in the West--Rutelli mobilized 25,000 volunteers and 12,000 portable toilets to accommodate 2 million pilgrims. When temperatures hit 100 degrees, he rolled out 16 tanker trucks to hose down the crowds.

Camped overnight in his Holy Year "crisis center," the mayor rode herd over 52 often bickering government agencies to pull the city through what he called "joyous confusion." No violence, serious injury or damage to famous monuments was reported during the youth pilgrimage.

"For Italy, this was a small miracle," said mayoral aide Paolo Gentilone.

After years of traffic-snarling public works projects, many Romans acknowledge that Rutelli's $1.8-billion Holy Year make-over of historic piazzas, bridges, churches and palaces has left the ancient city more dazzling than they've ever seen it, even though some fault him for not shelling out more for new subway lines.

City Hall was once infamous for corruption, but the mayor spent all that money without a hint of scandal.

"He's not a political heavyweight, but he deserves credit for an Italian success story," said Giuliano Ferrara, a close associate of Berlusconi who edits the newspaper Il Foglio.

Rutelli has based his climb on a personal make-over as well. A college dropout, he began a colorful political career in the Radical Party, an anticlerical and anti-establishment movement whose representatives in Parliament included porn star Ilona Staller. He was first elected mayor in 1993.

Aiming for higher office, he has switched parties twice--first to the Greens, more recently to the Democrats--and cozied up to the Vatican, a potent political force in Italy. He goes to Mass often, meets with the pope and has remarried his journalist wife in the church.

Such opportunism has earned him two nicknames: the Pope's Mayor and Piacione (one who is eager to please). In the nastiest Holy Year controversy, he infuriated allies in the gay rights movement by denying promised funding from City Hall for a worldwide gay pride gathering in Rome but resisted Vatican pressure to postpone the event.

Rutelli waited until Rome had weathered the August youth pilgrimage to press his candidacy for prime minister. The telegenic mayor, who rides to work on a scooter, seized the airwaves and proclaimed his readiness to "serve the country."

With polls showing Rutelli the most popular center-left politician, Prime Minister Giuliano Amato unexpectedly stepped aside Monday and urged his coalition to nominate the mayor next month at its convention, where he is expected to be unopposed.

The 64-year-old Berlusconi, who was prime minister for seven months in 1994, is expected to win the premiership, however.

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