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Getting a Taste of Politics Florentine

A San Diego developer from Florence, Italy, campaigns to represent 400,000 fellow expatriates at the parliament in Rome.

January 31, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Massimo Seracini, a proud resident of the United States these many decades, is explaining why he is running for the parliament in Rome to represent fellow expatriate Italians.

"As Dante Alighieri used to say: 'If you don't see it, you don't feel it,' " Seracini, 62, said in a recent interview. Appropriately, he held court in the restaurant in the Little Italy neighborhood here that serves as his unofficial campaign headquarters.

Seracini, a developer of upscale, Italian-themed homes, is running for a seat representing Italian citizens living in North America and the Caribbean. For too long, he said, the Italian government has been negligent toward the 4 million Italian citizens who live outside the country.

"We are far away and nobody cares about us," said Seracini, picking up on the Dante quotation. "But they like our money."

Seracini talks of Dante as if he knows him. In a way, he does. Both the famed Italian poet and the emerging politician were born in Florence, where the Renaissance began.

To a true Florentine, leadership in the arts, or in politics, is seen as a birthright. Now Italy is trying, for the first time, to allow political representation for expatriates and Seracini says he has not just an urge but an obligation to run.

"I love it," said Seracini, his expansive gestures and booming laugh filling Cafe Zucchero, adding that he's got the political bug.

A change in the Italian constitution in 2002 added 18 seats to the Italian parliament, which had 945 elected members. The seats are strictly for Italian citizens living outside the country. Only expatriates can run and only expatriates can vote for them.

Ballots will be sent to citizens who have registered with Italian embassies. They must be mailed so that they can be counted along with other votes cast in the April 11 election.

Five districts were created: North America and the Caribbean, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. The North American district, with about 400,000 Italians eligible to vote, was allocated three seats in the lower house, two in the upper.

The idea of empowering expatriates is the life's work of one of Italy's most colorful and controversial political figures, Mirko Tremaglia, a member of the right-wing National Alliance.

Praised by his supporters as the "deputy with a heart," and blasted by his opponents as a homophobe and onetime follower of Benito Mussolini, Tremaglia has spent decades trying to obtain voting rights for expatriate Italians. In the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he is the minister of a department dedicated to Italians abroad.

Seracini is running as an independent and distances himself from the complexities and controversies of politics in Italy, which, as of the 2001 election, had five major parties and 29 minor ones. "The issues of Italians abroad are completely different than in Italy," he said.

Among them, he said, is lack of complete access to Italian social services for nonresident Italians, even though they may have paid property taxes for decades. Seracini owns a farmhouse in Tuscany where "we make our own olive oil."

After attending college in Florence and serving in the Italian army, he moved to California in 1968 for the most powerful reason of all.

"I fell in love with a California girl," he said.

Nearly four decades later, he has a different wife, Debbie -- who is the visitor services manager for the city of Coronado -- two grown daughters, and four grandchildren.

A younger brother, Maurizio, a graduate of UC San Diego, founded the Florence-based Editech that uses high technology to uncover the origin and authenticity of art works. He was mentioned in Dan Brown's blockbuster novel "The Da Vinci Code."

"On page 168," his brother said.

Seracini hopes to campaign by mail and website, www.massimoseracini.org, and, if elected, to split his time between San Diego and Rome and set up an office in Washington to handle concerns of his constituents. Like other legislators, the expatriates will serve five-year terms.

Seracini hopes that by serving in the parliament he can improve relations between the United States and Italy that have been soured by the war in Iraq. In his lapel he wears tiny American and Italian flags, and a pin of red lilies, symbol of Florence.

"In Europe in general, and Italy in particular, you see an attitude in the media that is anti-American," he said. "They're jealous of this country. I want to be a real ambassador for America.

"Somebody has to tell the truth about America -- it's not all about Iraq and what the CIA did in Chile. I love this country and I respect it."

Seracini plans to campaign in 35 cities. He corresponds with Italian newspapers, attends as many Italian festivals as possible (including one in Los Angeles where he set up a booth) and has sought advice from San Diego lawyer Mark Fabiani, a former White House counsel in the Clinton administration.

There are opponents, including the owner of a bakery in Berwyn, Ill., and a video magazine publisher in New York. The daunting nature of carrying a campaign to an entire continent does not bother Seracini.

"This is a fantastic adventure," Seracini said. "I'm not doing this for money or glory. I'm doing this because I'm a Florentine."

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