The Barefoot Mayor Local Hero Takes on Sicilian Corruption
The new mayor of Messina is a man of the people. The tireless nonpartisan is known to go barefoot through the city. And in the land of Berlusconi, he is fighting against corruption, organized crime and widespread disenchantment with politics.
Men with coarse features and shaved heads are pulling a heavy cart through the streets of Messina. The men, barefoot with tattoos on their upper arms, are sweating as they shout, again and again: "Viva Maria!"
By tradition, the men who carry the Madonna are dockworkers, ex-convicts and henchmen with the Sicilian Mafia, and these men look the part. They hope for redemption from the Virgin Mother for crimes ranging from extortion to drug dealing and murder. Along the side of the road, law-abiding bystanders hand their small children up onto the cart to be blessed.
La Vara, or the procession of the Madonna, is Sicily's most important festival. It's been celebrated for about 500 years, complete with fireworks and sweet cannoli. La Vara is also seen as an arena for local bigwigs to show off their clout. On the day of the festival, those who are in charge here, the church and the Mafia, are always in the front rows. But everything is different this year. This year, the new mayor pulls the cart, with the help of a prominent Mafioso, but the mayor doesn't kiss the mobster's hand. Instead, he jumps onto the cart, setting off a ripple of whispers below, because this is something a mayor has never dared to do. Then they begin to shout, again and again, "Renato! Renato!"
Mayor Renato Accorinti often walks around barefoot, and the day of the festival is no exception. He is wearing a T-shirt from Addio Pizzo, an anti-Mafia movement, imprinted with the words: "A people that pays no protection money is a free people." At last year's procession, Addio Pizzo activists handed out flyers against the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta and were chased away.
Now the mayor jumps from the cart onto the stage in front of the cathedral and says, in a soft voice: "This is a public festival, and I'm a man of the people. A future is possible in Messina! We can only be strong together!" There are several minutes of applause.
A New Kind of Politician
Accorinti has been mayor of the city of about 250,000, on the Strait of Messina, since June 24. He is a physical education teacher, not a party politician, and he campaigned as part of a citizens' movement called "Let us change Messina from the bottom up." Anyone who accompanies him is astonished by his stamina, and by the southern Italians' newfound enthusiasm for politics.
Accorinti takes only a few steps before a crowd has formed around him. "For us, you are a second Pope Francis," they say, addressing him in the familiar form, and showering him with hugs and kisses. Accorinti returns the sentiment by hugging, kissing and addressing them all in the familiar form. His election came unexpectedly. He was an accidental mayor, a sensation for Sicily. The island on the outermost edge of Europe is Italy's poorest region -- corrupt, clannish and a sinkhole for millions in European Union subsidies.
Most of all, however, the election is a sensation for Messina, a city where for decades municipal politics was essentially a vehicle for personal enrichment. The wives of Accorinti's two predecessors were arrested in July for embezzling government funds. The city has a budget shortfall of 600 million ($812 million). While the Mafia is in control in Palermo and Reggio Calabria, Messina is traditionally the place where it catches its breath and plans its next move.
Accorinti is an example of how, in a country that was run into the ground for decades by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, someone can govern without scandal, pomp or grand gestures. He is a local hero, unlike the combative partisan politicians who currently make up a very shaky government in Rome.
- Part 1: Local Hero Takes on Sicilian Corruption
- Part 2: Messina's Bridge to Nowhere