Why you should care
Because he’s driven not by political ambition, but indignation over government corruption.
During Carnival, millions take to the streets in Brazil to forget their woes and party. This past February, however, there were shouts of “Fora Temer!” (Temer out!) — a familiar cry from Brazilians fed up with President Michel Temer’s government, but coming from revelers, it was a sign of just how outraged citizens have become with what they see as a corrupt political system and deep economic woes. Now there are calls to impeach Temer in the wake of reports alleging he arranged for hush money to pay off an associate jailed as part of the Petrobas corruption scandal.
Enter José Reguffe, 44, a senator elected in 2006 with no party affiliation who is connecting to disillusioned middle-class voters with his plans for political and economic reform. Offering relief from Brazil’s bloated and crisis-ridden political scene, he has reduced his staff from 55 to 12, taken a personal pay cut and launched a raft of proposals, from slashing senators’ office expenses by 50 percent to requiring government departments to provide online, itemized details of expenditures.
In addition, Reguffe has proposed reducing corporate taxes — among the most expensive in the world, at around 34 percent — and streamlining the notoriously complex tax process, which can take months or even years to master. He would also prevent politicians from being re-elected more than once. “Being a politician should be a service, not a profession,” he says. This is particularly critical in a country where, according to the NGO Transparencia Brasil, 49 percent of federal congressmen elected in 2014 came from political dynasties. By contrast, Reguffe earned an economics degree from the University of Brasilia, studied journalism at the Institute of Superior Education, also in Brasilia, and then hosted a news program on Brasilia’s TV Apoio for four years. Speaking in sound bites, he can at times appear more scripted presenter than impassioned public servant.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Reguffe spent most of his childhood in the capital, Brasilia, after his military father was stationed there, and he considers it home. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he attends weekly services at a Catholic church and prefers to pass the Carnival festivities at home with his wife and 1-year-old son. His mild temperament — and habit of personally distributing campaign pamphlets in the streets of Brasilia — shaped his reputation as a different breed from the old-school political class. “Most enter [politics] to represent interests, theirs or others, and for some it is a vocation,” he says. “For me, it was indignation. Brazil needs deep political reform, and a government that serves its population: honest, serious and efficient.”
From the murk of crisis, Reguffe sees opportunity for far-reaching reform.
Brazil is a country in trouble. It ranked 79th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s 2016 corruption list, and an investigation at state oil firm Petrobras, known as Operation Car Wash, has engulfed construction firm bosses and politicians. The scandal rocked the economy, breaking just as oil prices started to slide. Following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff last August, interim president Michel Temer’s austerity measures have yet to kick-start the struggling economy, though markets have buoyed slightly. Waves of street protests are fueled by anger over ministers in Temer’s government facing corruption accusations — just like previous government officials. Meanwhile, unemployment in Brazil reached an all-time high of 13.7 percent in March. With protesters connecting their country’s political graft to its failing economy, it’s no surprise a 2016 Ipsos poll found 77 percent of Brazilians do not trust any political party. From the murk of crisis, Reguffe sees opportunity for far-reaching reform. “Operation Car Wash is one of the best things to happen in Brazil in recent years,” he says. Brazil’s attorney general Rodrigo Janot agrees: He believes the investigation will help put an end to the country’s endemic corruption.
With his bland suits and careful, deliberate delivery — in contrast to the flashier, grandstanding members of Brazil’s Congress — Reguffe is the picture of modesty and simplicity. And it’s no accident: These are the very traits he hopes to extend to Brazilian institutions. Yet Reguffe’s version of anti-politics is seen by many as essentially conservative. He voted to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff for violating budget rules — insisting “a government that does what it wants is a dictatorship” — despite claims from the left the impeachment was in effect a political coup by the right.
In theory, though, Reguffe’s independence should make him immune to the dealmaking that has characterized Brazilian coalition politics. But effecting fundamental changes, such as abolishing compulsory voting in general elections, which he believes makes politicians complacent, is a huge challenge for a senator with no party affiliation. Without a major party apparatus behind them — or their own source of wealth, experts say — politicians can find their proposals hampered and their chances of being elected stymied. “It’s very hard for someone who is not in one of the big parties to have any chance of winning,” explains Joao Feres, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University. And while it’s fairly common for Brazilian politicians to swap parties and spend brief periods without affiliation, Reguffe is the country’s only independent, something else he wants to see change.
For Rodrigo Magalhaes, who, like Reguffe, graduated from the University of Brasilia, the senator’s proposals do nothing to tackle Brazil’s deep social problems. Politicians’ expenses, he says, is an ethical issue, not an economic one. Magalhaes, a professor at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, points out that Reguffe recently voted for a law that will effectively freeze public spending for 20 years, punishing many of the poorest. He adds: “He doesn’t have a single proposal as to how to combat the mechanisms of influence of corporate and financial interests.” Reforms proposed by other groups to make funding of political parties more transparent were defeated in Congress this year.
Reguffe’s response is that he leads by example: Reducing his staff and salary has made more money available for health, education and security. “I am doing my part, no more, no less,” he says, in his familiar, self-effacing way. Cynics can take his modesty as affectation, while others wonder if a humble, self-contained approach like his can ever gain real traction or influence. For now, it remains to be seen whether “no more, no less” will be enough.