Why you should care

Because no one saw Donald Trump coming either.

If the world was looking for an Emmanuel Macron figure in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election, some would argue they should look no further than the offices of São Paulo’s controversial millionaire mayor, João Doria. There, a picture of the former businessman shaking hands with France’s president hints at him being a man with his heart in São Paulo but his head focused on Brasília.

“I liked the private sector, but I am enjoying being a manager in the public sector,” he says, sporting a heart-shaped São Paulo pin on his lapel. Doria, who in his earlier days worked in television, advertising, event planning and magazine publishing, had never been elected to office before his landslide victory over the leftist Workers’ Party in municipal elections in 2016.

He has become, and appears to enjoy being, a divisive politician in South America’s largest city. Controversies he has stirred up range from infuriating street graffiti artists by having some of their work painted over — their impromptu offerings are on public view more or less everywhere in São Paulo — to ordering the police to clear the inner-city area known as Cracolândia, occupied by crack addicts.

He is praised by some as “the man,” but you also see slogans of “Doria out.”

As for the street artists, he says he is not against graffiti as such, just “tagging.” His critics on the crack issue, meanwhile, argue that his efforts have merely scattered the addicts to other parts of the city center.

Doria is praised by some paulistanos as o cara (“the man”). But you also see slogans daubed on walls of “Fora Doria” (“Doria out”).

A marketing man by background and a natural salesman of his own image, Doria — there are shades of Donald Trump here — is a former host of Brazil’s version of the television show The Apprentice. In a similar vein, he portrays himself as an outsider transforming São Paulo into a “smart city” with digital processes instead of endless bureaucracy.

“Until May 30 last year, it used to take 126 days to open a company here,” he says. “Today it takes five days, and, as of July 1, it will be two. This is a transformation. With this we will gain time, speed, control, transparency and greatly reduce corruption.”

Doria, 60, could be reasonably described as a workaholic. Night has fallen outside City Hall — designed by Marcello Piacentini, one of Benito Mussolini’s favorite architects — but he still has several meetings to go to. An avid user of Twitter, he has adopted the hashtag “hardworking João.”

Brazil’s stream of corruption scandals, such as the so-called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, spurred a general disenchantment with politicians, which helped bring him to office. His idea of São Paulo becoming a more entrepreneurial city underpinned his popularity and helped him to a decisive win in the first round of the mayoral election. He has even been touted as a presidential hopeful.

His ratings have fallen, however. At first, he was “the novelty that generated hope among almost the entire population” of the city, says Mauro Paulino, director of polling company Datafolha. He says many citizens feel disappointed.

This is in part because, some critics say, he has spent too much time traveling abroad or elsewhere in Brazil. Doria counters that his numerous trips last year — to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. — are “largely justified.” He was looking to raise R$7 billion ($2.1 billion), he says, by selling off 1,200 municipal assets to private investors. Such properties include São Paulo’s Formula One track, which costs the city R$120 million a year to manage.

His travels around Brazil have been seen by some commentators as campaigning for this year’s presidency. “No trip was paid for with public money,” he says. “I have my helicopter, my private plane.” If politicking was his intent, the trips also sometimes backfired. Eggs were thrown at him in Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.

In São Paulo, he has provoked an outcry over his suggestion that reconstituted food — farinata — made from flour and pasta near their expiration date could help feed the city’s poor, not least its 15,000 homeless people. Some of his critics called it “dog food.” He has responded by saying his administration is working to improve the lives of the city’s dispossessed by providing new shelters and by way of partnerships with companies such as McDonald’s.

While Doria’s style and background have drawn comparison by some critics to Donald Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, he likens himself to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York. He is “fully pro-privatization” and for a “smaller state,” Doria notes. Like Bloomberg, he says, he has not drawn a mayoral salary.

Argentina’s president and former mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, is another character he is drawn to. “I know him, and I like him,” Doria says of the wealthy businessman turned politician. “He is modern, efficient, transforming and courageous.”

With October’s general election wide open, the question is where next for Doria. Geraldo Alckmin, the veteran governor of São Paulo state, has been earmarked as the presidential candidate for Doria’s Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). The mayor is expected to leave his post in April to go for the governor’s seat in the election, but insiders believe he may run for president if the popularity of Alckmin, presently fourth in the polls, fails to rise.

Doria remains enigmatic. “Without courage you do nothing,” he says. “There is no victory without pain.”

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By Andres Schipani

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