Last year, João Doria emerged as an electoral phenomenon. With no electoral experience whatsoever, the former TV show host was considered the dark horse of a mayoral race featuring the sitting mayor, one of his predecessors, and a congressman connected to evangelical groups. Still, Doria did the impossible, beating them all in the first round. Thanks to a campaign that presented him as an efficient technocrat, he became the only candidate in the city’s history to win without requiring a runoff stage.
Young, dynamic, and uber-connected to social media, Doria seemed to be the perfect candidate. Even before he took office, rumors began to spread that City Hall was just a stepping stone for the juggernaut’s biggest ambition: the presidency.
Doria started his first day in office at 5:30 am, dressed as a street sweeper to help a crew clean up a square near São Paulo’s center. It was a beautiful photo op that conveniently inspired 56,000 likes on his Facebook page (which has 2.8 million fans), and marked the kick-off to a campaign that mirrored the intensity of reality television show – a domain in which Doria has plenty of experience.
Between mayoral events, meetings, and breakfast selfies, the mayor has published an average of 10 posts per day on Facebook. He has also dedicated a large chunk of his time to trips around the country, a clear strategy to raise awareness of his name outside São Paulo. Since January, Doria spends one out of every four days as mayor outside the city he runs, which has provoked jokes from his critics. “He acts like the city’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,” says Claudio, a 45-year-old teacher.
After only nine months into his first term in office ever, it might still be early to judge Doria as a politician. However, it is possible to call him an impulsive and divisive force. Doria’s ascension to power was dramatic. During the 2016 election, he benefited from the fact that the three main candidates were too busy trying to destroy each other’s reputations, leaving Doria alone in his own lane. Benefiting from a political environment favorable to outsiders, the debutant cruised to win.
“He was basically untested. Now, as mayor, his actions are scrutinized to the point of exhaustion,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of Public Policies at the University of São Paulo. And being in the limelight means that Doria can no longer get away with anything. His approval ratings have dipped since he took office, and voters don’t seem to consider him a suitable option for President– at least, not for now.
To be fair, Doria’s predecessors also suffered from approval ratings slumps shortly after the commencing their terms. The difference is that they didn’t have such a well-oiled marketing machine built around them.
But as much as São Paulo’s mayor takes great care of his image, he has become famous for his successive faux pas – a bit strange for an alleged expert in marketing.
The mayor’s controversies
Just last week, Doria caught himself at the center of a controversy. He announced that the city of São Paulo would give pellets of nearly-expired food to the poor. “It’s a blessed product,” he said, promising that it would be given to children in public schools. During the announcement, Doria tried to take credit for the idea for himself, even though other politicians and the Catholic Church have been discussing the project for quite some time.
The pellet operation was a disaster, and it blew up in Doria’s face. The pellets were compared to animal food, criticized by the Regional Nutrition Council, and considered by human rights associations as degrading to the poor. It didn’t help that Doria lied about the project being supported by the United Nations. Also not helping was his statement that “Poor people don’t have eating habits, they should thank God [for having anything to eat at all].” After a few days of backlash, Doria backpedaled and will be burying the pellets idea.
His plan to run an administration close to the business sector has also raised some eyebrows. São Paulo’s mayor has asked for donations to the city’s administration, securing a record 320 companies to support the city of São Paulo, in one way or another. All good, except when a company that donated 16,700 BRL to one of the mayor’s projects managed to secure an 880,000 BRL deal with the City Hall. Haters call it quid pro quo, but it might be nothing more than a coincidence. After all, politics is a terrain where coincidences happen all the time …
Another highly controversial episode was his raids against the city’s cracolândia – a spot for drug use and commerce in the center of São Paulo. The strategy was to destroy shacks and prevent drug users from building new ones. As a result, residents left the “traditional” crackland and spread to other areas of the city. While the action boosted Doria’s approval rating among voters, most experts criticized his actions.
Doria’s presidential ambitions have also rubbed voters and allies the wrong way. For every 10 São Paulo voters, 6 believe he should serve his term until its end in 2020, instead of joining the presidential race. Meanwhile, he has engaged in a battle with São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin for their party’s presidential nomination. They both belong to PSDB, a political family often criticized for a lack of strong convictions. On the federal level, for instance, the party flirts with the idea of rupturing with the embattled Michel Temer administration – but never pulls the plug. Doria has already stated that he’s a different man, “someone who will choose a side.”
The mayor has also engaged in more explicit attacks, directed at former São Paulo Governor Alberto Goldman, who declared that “Doria runs the City Hall from WhatsApp [a messaging app].” In response, the former TV show host called Goldman a “non-productive loser.” “His main adversaries are within his party. PSDB doesn’t act like a united front, and that’s why Doria should go for a lower profile,” says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília.
But not everything is wrong in Doria’s administration. His partnerships with public hospitals to allow consultations and exams for the poor during early hours of the morning has drastically reduced the number of people on the waiting list for exams as simple as X-rays. He has also hired 9,000 teachers – doubling the average hires of his predecessor – and has reduced the bureaucracy necessary to open a business in São Paulo.
He has recently said he wouldn’t step down to privilege the presidential race. But others in his shoes have said the same, and then did the opposite. If Doria chooses who to serve the rest of his term as São Paulo’s mayor, he certainly has his work cut out for him, due to the sheer number of problems facing Brazil’s biggest city.