1. Governance
February 20, 2017updated 29 Jul 2021 11:35am

Is the new mayor of São Paulo Latin America’s answer to Donald Trump?

By Jack May

If you’re late to a meeting with him, you’re fined £50 for every 15 minutes you hold him up. In a city where traffic jams snake for miles and miles along fume-choked highways, it’s a formidable threat. “Everyone laughed at me, but they are all obeying now,” he once explained.

The new mayor of Brazil’s biggest city and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, doesn’t do things conventionally. And since he took office in January, the city’s collective eyebrows have certainly been raised.

A multi-millionaire mogul who used to host O Aprendiz – Brazil’s own version of The Apprentice  – João Doria Jr. has obviously drawn hasty comparisons to Donald J. Trump, erstwhile mogul and Apprentice host, latterly – for some unholy reason – president of the United States of America.

While he personally prefers his likeness to Michael Bloomberg, the stonkingly loaded former mayor of New York City, the Trump comparison is a convenient one. Critics paint him as a reckless irresponsible political outsider, who doesn’t know the ropes of the system and is now burning the sensible policies accumulated by his predecessors with the delicacy and expediency befitting of a media tycoon who used to be the publisher of a glossy magazine called Caviar Lifestyle.

They point to his self-help books, with titles like Lessons In Winning; his use of a flashy public-friendly media persona and dashing smile as masks to cover up highly suspect links to his private-sector pals; and hypocritical approach to the coffers of the state as testament to his unsuitability for public office.

But are the comparisons fair?


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Look how pretty São Paulo is, though. Image: Julio Boaro.

Blowing his own Trump-et

The back-story isn’t far off. João Agripino da Costa Doria Jr. had a similarly silver-spoon upbringing, born in São Paulo to a regional politician for the north-eastern region of Bahia, and descended from an important colonial family. His father was exiled to Paris during the military dictatorship, and João Jr. spent time studying in England, at Sussex University, before heading back to Brazil in his mid-twenties.

At 26, he became secretary of tourism for São Paulo under a centre-left mayor, Mário Covas, and then went on to become president of the Embratur – the Brazilian Tourist Board. To pretend that Doria is a total political outsider with no experience of the cogs of the Brazilian machine, then, is more than a little erroneous.

His tenure was colourful, if a little divisive. He was criticised for promoting sex tourism to Brazil by intensifying imagery of partially-clothed, mostly-nude women in publicity materials – and is most certainly at least partially responsible for the perpetuation of Brazil’s image as a country of nice derrières on sunny beaches, which hangs thick in the air to this day.

He also had his first real foray into politics – beyond the ‘civil service’ type administrative realm – as an organiser for ‘Diretas Já’. A civil unrest campaign and movement, in 1984 it pushed for direct presidential elections, to replace the electoral college system that allowed the country’s military dictatorship to keep hold of the reigns of power.

Diretas Já, the ’80s unrest movement João helped organise. Image: Arquivo da Agência Brasil.

Though not immediately successful, the agitation of which Doria was a part led to the 1988 constitution, which wove direct presidential elections by two-round voting – à la France – into Brazil’s political fabric.

The 1990s was the real making of the João Doria Jr. brand. He set up Videomax, a media company that runs television channels like Rede Bandeirantes and RedeTV!, and built a publishing company called Doria Editoria that publishes a whole host of titles – most unfortunately for João’s political ambitions, a magazine called Caviar Lifestyle.

Coincidentally, Doria once interviewed Donald Trump for a local São Paulo newspaper – Folha de São Paulo – in 1988. The interview is nothing extraordinary, but he did get Trump to divulge that he spent $29m on his yacht. So that’s something.

He crept into the household-name domain as presenter of the TV show Show Business from 1992 until 2016. It was a kind of businessman’s chat-show with lots of men in suits talking about money and success and how to be as man-in-suit-ish as they are.

But how does such a glitzy, wealthy, politically inexperienced figure come to be mayor of the largest city on the southern half of the planet?

Pretty easily, it turns out.


João Doria Jr., left, holding the handover document with predecessor Fernando Haddad. Image: Rovena Rosa.

The election that Jo-ãoed everyone

He pitched himself as the populist hero of São Paulo’s run-down, workaday, poorer majority. He picked up their votes, and the support of their parts of the city, with ease, with his campaign hinging on a phrase that’s all too familiar – “I’m a businessman, not a politician”.

Despite the odd hiccup – most extraordinarily when his wife was recorded saying that poor people “just want a hug” – it worked. He’s the first mayor of São Paulo to win the election in the first round since the new electoral system was introduced in 1992. He got 53.3 per cent of the vote, and carried many of the city’s poorest districts; his main opponent Fernando Haddad, from the beset Workers’ Party of impeached president Dilma Rousseff, dribbled out a meagre 16.7 per cent, mostly garnered in more middle-class areas.

His rise was phenomenal. Opinion polls from August 2016 showed just 5-9 per cent support for João Doria Jr., while the lost poll before election day on 2 October, released on 1 October, showed 44 per cent.

Since taking on the post, he’s kicked up a storm.

He’s embarked on the biggest programme of privatisation in Brazilian history. The scale of it is truly astonishing: he’s selling concessions to 107 parks, 22 cemeteries, the city’s funeral service, the crematorium, 16 markets, 29 bus terminals, the Pacaembu soccer stadium, and the ticketing system for the city’s public transport (a bit like selling off Oyster to a private firm).

He also has plans to sell Anhembi, which operates the city’s annual carnival parade, and Interlagos, the Formula One racetrack. In theory, the sales will raise seven billion reais, which is roughly equivalent to £1.8bn – money that he intends to spend on improving the city’s health and education.

The private sector already plays an important part in Doria’s approach to the city. He got rid of the city’s fleet of 1,300 cars, and told his staff to use Uber instead. And he arranged a deal with Unilever, which now provides the city’s homeless with soap and toothpaste, while Mitsubishi and Honda are donating petrol vehicles.

It’s not entirely clear how these deals work, and what these corporate giants are getting from the state in return, but the scale and speed of such arrangements has been enough to raise eyebrows – nowhere more so than Doria’s flagship health programme.

São Paulo’s highways, stretching the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Image: The Photographer.

Chega de Saudade for Saúde

Corujão da Saúde, which translates literally as ‘Health Owl’ was a central part of Doria’s platform. But it has run into difficulties. The idea of the scheme was to work with the private sector to end long hospital waiting times for approximately 450,000 patients currently languishing on waiting lists in need of examinations, tests, and operations. As part of the programme, big pharma firms have ‘donated’ medication that is then distributed to people in need.

But irregularities have been found. “Read the report that points to nine irregularities in the Corujão da Saúde”, reads one headline that’s circulated around local social media. The report in question was published by the Court of Audit of the Municipality of São Paulo, and – though my Portuguese is miles off being able to read it – raises huge questions about how these private contracts were put out to tender; questions over dubious administrative practices that could be a crude cover for sinister untoward dealings is but the tip of the iceberg.

Blue skies with a chance of populist destruction, apparently. Image: Pexels.

While it’ll take a while to find out whether this programme, with all its quirks, is actually making São Paulo’s poor any healthier – of course, the old maxim is that “what matters is what works” – the potential for corruption and insider dealing to be absolutely rife in all this has made critics deeply uneasy.

Aside from sinister machinations, Doria has attracted consternation in more simple, old-fashioned ways. He promised not to increase bus fares during his election campaign – a critical lifeline of mobility for a city gripped by poverty and inequality in many quarters – but hiked prices for many travel passes when he came into office. The increases were suspended by a court, but the sheer shamelessness of so brazenly going back on a flagship campaign pledge so early on is telling.  

Fernando Haddad, whose re-election bid Doria spectacularly trounced, had created cycle lanes, opened the city’s famous Avenida Paulista to pedestrians, musicians, and cyclists at the weekends, and lowered speed limits on the city’s leviathan ring-road highways. Doria scored a hasty U-turn on all of these.

While deaths on the highways fell by 57 per cent in 2016 as a result of the lower limits, accidents have been on the up since Doria hiked them back up again. “CET recorded at least 5 accidents on São Paulo’s ring roads on the first day of increased speed limits” reads one headline, while protestors interrupted a photo-op press conference celebrating the changes by giving him a bouquet of flowers and holding a sign saying “in memory of the dead in traffic”. It’s hard to fathom what sensible thinking could have led to him wanting to bump them up again, though maybe he just took his own official election slogan – “Acelera São Paulo” / “Speed up São Paulo” – a little too literally.

Art or graffiti? Mutually exclusive, says Doria. Image: Silko.

Paint it grey

His second big drive – called Cidade Linda – has been to clean up São Paulo, a city infamous for being a little rough around the edges, and certainly not the beautiful picture of its near-neighbour and rival Rio de Janeiro. Mostly, the drive has consisted of agonisingly cringe-inducing photo-ops, with Doria donning hi-vis jackets, cleaning overalls, and a broom.

The campaign occupies a nauseous political space somewhere between George Osborne in the early 2010s and the horrors of ‘Clean for the Queen’. But it’s been criticised for its ruthless, unthinking, uncritical approach. He’s obliterated many of São Paulo’s most-loved murals, covering them in crass grey paint after deeming them graffiti and vandalism. Countless examples of pichação – a unique type of graffiti writing treasured as part of regional heritage by locals – have been wiped out in a philistinic purge against everything other than bare, clean, concrete walls.

Much about Doria seems contradictory. He sleeps four hours a night, has pledged to donate his salary to charity – the first instalment of 17,948 reais, or £4,650, went to the Associação de Assistência à Criança Deficiente, a charity that rehabilitates disabled adults and children so they can live normally in society – and has said he won’t run for re-election in 2020. He preaches against state largesse, stresses the importance of getting the private sector online, and told the New York Times in an interview: “I don’t need to be in politics. I have my plane, my helicopter, my car, my home, but I like my country. I like Brazil.”

Pichação, the São Paulo calligraphy graffiti style. Image: Jamesink.

And yet he and his wife have benefitted directly from that same largesse. Caviar Lifestyle made more than £400,000 from state advertising, while his wife – a sculpture artist – was able to write off hefty taxes for her company in exhcnage for an exhibition of her work in Miami and a glossy coffee-table book about herself, as part of a questionable cultural incentive tax scheme.

He has ridden the wave of his enormous electoral mandate, but it must be understood in the context of a year when trust in Brazilian politicians of all stripes is at an all-time low, with the Petrobras corruption scandal threatening to consume everything in its wake, and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff hanging over the country like a bad smell.

Voting is obligatory in Brazil, but this election saw record numbers refuse to turn up across the country. Even in the miraculous case of João Doria Jr., ‘none of the above’ topped the ballot.

To his working-class, urban-roots base, he’s a celebrity hero who knows how to make business work, and who has voluntarily given up a lucrative life to don his overalls and do his bit to put São Paulo to work. To the city’s middle-class intellectuals, he’s an aberration intent on dismantling São Paulo’s state infrastructure and cultural colour through a concerted programme of shady privatisation and aggressive, philistine whitewashing – or rather, grey-washing.

To the cynics, he’s a privileged rich boy who’s pushed through the revolving doors into the political game, and is set to be kingmaker in the 2018 presidential election – where his prominent backer Geraldo Alckmin, governor of the state of São Paulo, may be likely to make a bid – with some talking of a President Doria further down the line. But to true believers, João Doria Jr. is the outsider who stuck a spanner in the works and wouldn’t stop fiddling until the cogs turned a little more easily.

He’s got four years to prove himself – or bring Brazil’s urban leviathan to a juddering halt. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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