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Paving way to top in Mexico

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard could have a shot at the presidency if he solves the capital's deep problems.

October 19, 2008|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Marcelo Ebrard has turned this balmy city into an ice skaters' wonderland. He's conjured sandy beaches far from the sea. He's made hordes of annoying hawkers vanish from the historic main plaza.

In nearly two years as mayor of Mexico's capital, Ebrard has shown a bent for splashy initiatives to ease the strains of daily life in a huge and unruly city. But the question is whether the leftist mayor can succeed against the city's deep problems: legendary traffic, kidnappings, poverty, eye-stinging smog, water shortages, an aging subway system and crooked police. It is a tall order.

If he does, the 49-year-old Ebrard could be a contender for the country's top office. A wonkish technocrat with years of working the halls of Mexico City's government, he has signaled his presidential aspirations, though the election is four years away.

The job of managing this city of 9 million people, officially a federal district and considered Mexico's 32nd state, gets a lot of national media exposure, with ample opportunity to shine or stumble publicly. Ebrard, a key figure in the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, has done both.

In an interview, the lanky and bespectacled mayor laid out a lofty-sounding vision for Mexico City, with elements of the economic dynamism of London and New York and urban integration of Barcelona, Spain.

For now, though, he is pursuing a pragmatic, pothole-filling approach, leavened with such populist touches as turning public pools into artificial beaches.

"Marcelo Ebrard is one of the politicians who knows the federal district best," said political analyst Alfonso Zarate, adding that the mayor wants to build support "through effective government, not personality."

More than 350 public works projects are underway, including a new subway line, bus lanes and an overhaul of the overwhelmed sewage system. Ebrard has sought to get thousands of old or unlicensed taxis off the streets and help owners buy newer models.

His wish list is short and not very sexy: better public transportation, improved public spaces, green policies that get residents more engaged in their environment.

"If we accomplish that, I think it will be very good, those three things," Ebrard said. He spoke in an office in the hip Condesa neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, actress Mariagna Prats.

Being the bus-lane mayor may not make a catchy slogan. But it's a good way to score points in traffic-obsessed Mexico City.

Also looming, however, is crime, a minefield for any Mexico City leader.

Activists, angered by persistent kidnappings, organized major demonstrations here and around the country in August. The protest did not target Ebrard, but it reflected broad outrage over crime in the capital.

Ebrard insists that crime in his city is exaggerated and going down.

"It's safer than Los Angeles," he said, flipping through statistics to make his point. But Mexican crime data are often unreliable because many offenses go unreported.

Ebrard was well-versed in Mexico City government long before he won the mayor's race by a wide margin in 2006. He was a top city deputy during the early 1990s, when the country was run by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and Mexico City's chief executive was appointed by the president. Residents began electing the mayor in 1997.

Ebrard bolted from the PRI and served as police chief and social development secretary under his predecessor and ally, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2006.

Supporters say Ebrard showed courage as a new mayor when he ousted 15,000 well-organized sidewalk vendors from around the central plaza, known as the Zocalo. Previous mayors promised to move the vendors, or ambulantes, but none tried.

The eviction has freed the historic zone for pedestrians. But the ambulantes complain that their new quarters are poor and that sales are way down. Critics deride Ebrard's recreation projects, such as ice skating in the Zocalo, as stunts to steer attention from problems such as crime and unemployment.

"It's not enough to give people bread and circus," said Mariana Gomez del Campo, who heads the Mexico City branch of the conservative National Action Party. "You have to give them real results."

Ebrard lacks Lopez Obrador's charisma, but analysts say he is in a good position to inherit leadership of the Mexican left if Lopez Obrador clears the way.

Ebrard isn't shy about his presidential aims.

"The city is very demanding. You can't get too distracted," he said. But he added, "I think every governor, except for those who are very mediocre, must think they can do something bigger."

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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