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Colorful Contenders Vie in Sao Paulo

In Brazil, a sex expert battles to hold on to the mayor's office in a race with a veteran hopeful and a politician with a crooked reputation.

September 26, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, Brazil — What do a blond sexologist, a failed presidential nominee and a man accused of laundering millions of dollars through a Swiss bank account have in common?

In the colorful world of Brazilian politics, the three are the leading candidates for mayor here in South America's largest city.

In fact, one of them already is the mayor. Marta Suplicy, a sex expert by training, is seeking a second four-year term. Another, Paulo Maluf, has served as mayor twice before. During his term in the 1990s, he allegedly siphoned tens of millions of dollars in public funds to a private account in Europe.

Of the three major candidates, only Jose Serra has never held the post, but not for want of trying: He ran and lost in 1996. Two years ago, he was also trounced in a bid for president, defeated in a landslide by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former lathe operator and union leader who backs Suplicy for reelection.

But the fortunes of politicians in Brazil are ever-changing, and polls show that the somewhat starchy, gray-suited Serra now has his best shot at leading his native city, a post often regarded as a springboard to higher office.

The race in Sao Paulo is the highest-profile contest in this country's municipal elections, scheduled for Oct. 3. Voters are to choose mayors in all of Brazil's 5,500 cities, from remote towns in the Amazon basin to megalopolises like Rio de Janeiro.

Analysts are paying close attention to the elections as an indicator of public sentiment toward Lula, who is nearly halfway through his term as president. With the economy showing signs of life after a dismal year, Lula's approval ratings have begun to bounce back, and some pundits predict that his left-leaning Workers' Party, or PT, could make significant gains outside its traditional strongholds in Brazil's big cities.

"These elections are critical ... because they'll determine the grass-roots base of support that parties can count upon in coming elections," said Christopher Garman, an analyst with Tendencias, a consultancy in Sao Paulo.

If Lula's comrades and allied parties can win control of more city halls, "they'll create a political base of support in interior parts of states where voters have never voted PT."

The biggest plum remains Sao Paulo, whose mayor commands a national profile in Brazil much as the mayor of New York does in the United States. As a sign of its importance, the mayoral contest here is setting records for campaign spending.

This sprawling city, which is celebrating the 450th anniversary of its founding, is Brazil's industrial and financial capital, home to gleaming skyscrapers, expensive boutiques and a private helicopter fleet second in size only to New York's. It is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, a place where sushi restaurants and art galleries are packed with professionals and socialites.

But below its shiny surface are profound problems, including poverty of a level virtually unknown in the U.S. More than 1 million residents live in squalid slums, where basic sanitation and other services often don't exist. Unemployment verges on a staggering 20%. Violence is pervasive. Last year, the city recorded more than 4,000 slayings.

Lula's Workers' Party, with its emphasis on improving the lot of the common man, was born here -- but gets no free ride.

"If you look at Sao Paulo's electorate, it tends to be more conservative than the national electorate," Garman said. "In the presidential election [of 2002], Lula beat Jose Serra in the city of Sao Paulo by 120,000 votes, which is less than 1 percentage point, whereas he beat Serra by a very large margin in the rest of the country. He barely won Sao Paulo when he had almost a landslide on the national level."

Lula has been vocal in his support of Suplicy, a longtime activist in the Workers' Party despite a personal background of wealth and privilege.

Admirers of the 59-year-old incumbent call her a vibrant, indefatigable champion of the downtrodden who has toiled hard to improve health and education in poorer parts of the city. Last year, to ease Sao Paulo's nightmarish traffic, Suplicy initiated a series of massive transportation projects, but construction work has only worsened congestion, critics say.

At a forum this month, Suplicy appealed to voters to give her the chance to finish what she began.

"To be mayor of this city for eight years is the chance of a lifetime," she said. "I was born here. I have a passion for this city. I understand this city."

But many Paulistanos are unconvinced. Detractors are turned off by what they describe as an arrogant demeanor belonging to a woman better known for her haute-couture suits, her divorce from an influential senator and the daily TV program on sexuality she hosted in the '80s.

"I'm poor, I'm not rich," retiree Jose de Freitas said. "What has she done for me?"

Similar accusations of aloofness hang over De Freitas' preferred candidate, Serra, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

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