Marta Suplicy does not make big promises. The frontrunner in yesterday's race to became the mayor of the most populous city in Brazil knows there are only a limited number of things she can do to make So Paulo a better place: limit corruption, help the city's poor, and make the megalopolis more manageable.
"Right now people are not expecting miracles," says Ms. Suplicy, just moments after a 4 a.m. meeting with bus drivers about to start work on the early shift. "People just want the city to work."
More than 17 million people live in the city and in the periphery of So Paulo. Although it is the nation's economic powerhouse, its sheer size has made it a nightmare to live in and govern. More than a quarter of its residents live in sub-standard housing; 1 in 5 are unemployed; its air and rivers are badly polluted; and violence is so rampant that police alone killed an average of three people a day in the first quarter of this year.
Many people have tried to make the city more livable, but few have had resounding success. What might just win Suplicy a mayor's sash is her realistic approach: She isn't promising a heck of a lot. And that has struck a chord with voters let down by unfulfilled vows of the past.
"The last two mayors promised a lot and nothing got done," says Andre Jose Lopes, a bus-fare collector who heard her early morning pitch. "I am not expecting big changes, just simple things like building houses, paving the roads."
At press time, results from yesterday's election had not been tallied, but it was widely expected that Suplicy, with 33 percent of voters backing her, would trounce her three opponents, each with about 13 percent support. If she doesn't win an absolute majority however (at least 51 percent), there will be a run-off on Oct. 29.
If elected, Suplicy says she will immediately start a program aimed at reducing the school dropout rate and improving education standards by paying lower-income families to send their kids to school. She has vowed to support adult-education programs and double the number of police to help combat violence.
Suplicy, a Stanford-trained psychoanalyst and former TV host, also wants Paulistanos (as residents are called) to become more involved in government, and she hopes to install sub-mayors to oversee city management. Her proposed People's Bank will offer small loans to entrepreneurs.
Although all the pledges are ones normally associated with the left-of-center Worker's Party, Suplicy is not the stereotypical Worker's Party (PT) candidate. The daughter of an elite So Paulo family, she spent holidays at a relative's castle when she was young. In her designer suits, the blond, blue-eyed Suplicy cuts an incongruous figure next to the typical PT candidates in open-neck shirts and jeans.
In one 24-hour period last week, she gave a speech to restaurateurs, debated education with engineering students, met with doctors, and arose before dawn to meet bus drivers. Many affluent voters see her as the acceptable face of the Worker's Party, while many on the left see her as a conscientious member of the elite.
"The poor voters who usually vote for the PT haven't been scared off by [her status]," says Rogerio Schmitt, a political scientist at the University of So Paulo. "What she has managed to do is expand the PT's reach to get votes from outside their traditional areas and into the middle class."
One of Suplicy's few actual campaign pledges is to "shut off the sources of corruption" and restore some order lost by mayor Celso Pitta's, who was twice removed for office for impropriety, but who twice battled back to finish his term.
If Suplicy can turn So Paulo around, analysts say, it will set her up as a leading contender for the presidency, a job she's said she would like. But political analysts say she might have a tough time in a second round, since So Paulo is conservative about electing leftist politicians.
If anyone can break that trend it is Suplicy. She has a broad base in So Paulo, where she did well during an unsuccessful 1998 bid for governor. And she is at ease with her decision not to set rash goals.
"That is my style," she says. "To do otherwise would be lying, and I'd rather not be elected than lie."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society