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From Burger Flipper to Bürgermeister? Immigrant Could Become Next Berlin Mayor

With Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit facing his political Waterloo, all eyes have turned to Raed Saleh, who could become the first mayor of a major German city with foreign roots. The German capital's changing demographics could help him.

It's a Friday evening and Raed Saleh makes himself comfortable in the backseat of a luxury sedan for the trip back to his past. To a collection of high-rise housing projects in Spandau -- a working class neighborhood located on the edge of the city and of its society.

His driver comes to a stop in front of a gymnasium and Saleh climbs out. Inside the building, it is loud and smells of sweat. Some 200 young men are playing soccer on two different floors, with games sometimes going until three in the morning. Hip-hop is booming from the speakers and there is sparkling water and sausage on offer in front of the locker rooms.

The project is called "Midnight Sports," and it is designed to offer Turks, Arabs, Germans and young men of up to 40 additional nationalities an alternative to hanging about on the streets. A kind of occupational therapy for the disadvantaged.

A New Chapter in German Politics

Saleh, 36, floor leader for the center-left Social Democrats in Berlin's city-state parliament and one of two or three SPD politicians vying to ultimately succeed Klaus Wowereit as the city's mayor, knows many of the soccer players personally and they greet him with handshakes. After all, Saleh -- who comes from a poor family, has eight siblings and had few prospects -- grew up in similar circumstances. Now, though, he smiles as he watches the games. "The police have less to do now," he says.

The young men in the gymnasium represent a new chapter in the history of social democracy, at least as Saleh sees it. "First, the SPD helped the workers, and then women," he says. "Now, it is the turn of the immigrants." And he's not just thinking about those participating in Midnight Sports. He is also thinking of himself.

With Wowereit's hold on power weakening -- the result of massive cost overruns and eternal delays in the construction of Berlin's once highly touted, and now mocked, new airport -- attention has turned to Saleh, a Palestinian who came to Berlin from the West Bank as a young boy. His first job was making French fries at Burger King. With a bit of luck, he could become the first head of a German state with Arab roots.

Every new airport setback, every new mini-scandal in Berlin -- such as that surrounding the alleged tax fraud perpetrated by a state secretary close to Wowereit -- raises new questions about the incumbent mayor's future. How long he is able to remain in office depends to a large degree on SPD deputies in Berlin city-state parliament and on the SPD floor leader. But Saleh seems to be in no rush. When others began a push to topple Wowereit, Saleh declined to join them. He is waiting for the right opportunity.

After almost 13 years under Wowereit, there are few certainties in Berlin these days. Hardly anybody knows what the Berlin mayor's plans are, aside from clinging to power. Nobody knows if he intends to cede power ahead of the next elections in 2016 or if he will have to be shoved out the door. The only sure thing is that his party is suffering, trailing even the conservative Christian Democratic Union -- which, despite party leader Angela Merkel's popularity as chancellor, has never had a strong foothold in the German capital -- in public opinion surveys.

Difficult Hurdles

Saleh has already become the city's most popular Social Democrat, just as Wowereit's own ratings have plunged. But whether that will be enough to take over the party's reins remains to be seen. Saleh doesn't just need the support of his faction in parliament -- he would also require the backing of the city-state's SPD chapter. But the chapter's leader, Jan Stöss, has aspirations of becoming Berlin mayor himself. And Wowereit's support will also likely be lacking following a power struggle between the two back in 2011.

More than anything, though, Saleh will have to convince Berlin voters that he has a vision for a metropolis that, while continuing to be a major tourist magnet and possessing an economy that appears at first glance to be doing well, continues to be among the weakest states in Germany, particularly when it comes to the labor market and education. Thus far, Saleh has focused many of his efforts on a group that has largely been ignored: His own milieu of Germans from Turkish or Arab families, a group which has seldom voted in the past.

On a recent afternoon in Spandau, Saleh was driving through the highrise housing complex in which he grew up. His father worked in an industrial bakery while his mother was a housewife, taking care of the many children. Saleh points up to the ninth floor where his mother is waving. By chance, one of Saleh's brothers walks across the parking lot. "That's Malek," the SPD politician says laughing. "He just got his Ph.D. in biochemistry yesterday."

An Exceptional Career Path

He's also happy with his own ascent, which began at Burger King. He started flipping burgers and then moved up to the cash register; before long he was in charge of the kitchen. Ultimately, he became a director in the holding company that owned the franchise. "I was very proud," Saleh says. In parallel, he completed his secondary school studies and started studying medicine before opting not to continue. Later, with two friends, he founded a media agency that still exists.

But such career paths are the exception in Saleh's former neighborhood, one that frequently lands in the headlines and is among Berlin's toughest areas. Some 80 percent of the children are from families that survive on social welfare. "You know how high voter participation is here," he asks? "Just 35 percent."

It would be a positive development were the district to create more biochemists like his brother; if an entire generation could be helped to take a step forward; if education and work would become the norm. "I have been working since I was 16," Saleh says. "It was always important to my parents that, if at all possible, you earn the money you need yourself."

This attitude, Saleh believes, is one that has to be learned early on. He says it would help young men and women as they enter the labor market instead of going straight from school to the line at the job center to collect unemployment. Those who successfully follow that path, Saleh hopes, will vote for the SPD in the future.

Among those below the age of 18 in Berlin, 45 percent have foreign roots. In the 2018/2019 school year, more children from immigrant families will start school than children without foreign backgrounds. It is only a matter of time before Berlin's fastest growing demographic also gains a greater say in city-state politics.

The city's old establishment, long represented by politicians like Wowereit or former Mayor Walter Momper, represent the other side. People within these circles have long harbored a sense of distrust toward Saleh, the newcomer from the highrises. Some Social Democrats can still recall unpleasantries directed at Saleh, like the time a caricature circulated featuring his wife clad in a burqa, or vitriolic questions from fellow SPD members, like, "Does this mean we have to roll a prayer rug out now?"

Torsten Schneider is secretary of the party's group in the city-state parliament and also a close confidant of Saleh's. He says the racist sentiment of some of his colleagues is laughable. The Saleh he knows is a different one -- a highly integrated man who almost goes out of his way to fit into his family's adopted country. "He even sings along to German folk music in the car," he says.

A Politicians Moves into the Mainstream

It may well have been true that Saleh had to straddle two worlds at the beginning of his political career. One featured his offices in parliament, where an oil painting of Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat and Germany's first democratically elected president, hangs on the wall. The other being the place where he grew up, the pedestrian zone in Berlin's working-class Spandau district, where he still greets old acquaintances with the Arabic "As-salamu alaykum" and cracks jokes with a sausage seller who immigrated from the Balkans. "They still haven't deported you yet?" he asks. "No, I'm getting fully assimilated now!" the man quips back.

By now, though, he has clearly moved into the mainstream of Berlin's SPD. In March he was re-elected as his party's floor leader by a wide majority. Other members of the party are pleased that the focus of state politics is no longer the cult of personality surrounding Wowereit and the botched opening of the Berlin airport. Thanks to Saleh, the SPD is once again associated with real issues, like integration policies.

Saleh hasn't made any announcements yet on whether he will pursue a mayoral bid. His allies are still negotiating for support in different parts of the city. And it may in fact be difficult to attract support for him in some areas, like those of the former East Berlin, where fewer immigrants reside. Across the city, though, one of the most important challenges for the party will be to woo new votes from immigrants in ways that do not cause it to lose support from traditional SPD circles.

There are no precedents in Germany for a candidacy like this. Not a single major city has an immigrant or a second-generation German as its mayor.

Can Berlin Learn from Rotterdam?

Last year, Saleh traveled to Rotterdam for several days, where Ahmed Aboutaleb, born in Morocco and also a Social Democrat, has served as mayor since 2009. Saleh wanted to know how he does it. Around 50 percent of Rotterdam's population is comprised of immigrants and the number of social welfare recipients in Holland's second-largest city is above average.

Aboutaleb's German visitor ended the trip in amazement. Those who receive welfare benefits from the city of Rotterdam are required to give something back to society, he learned from Aboutaleb, who sometimes peppers his conversations with fellow residents with verses from Arabic poetry. In order to get welfare, they have to be willing to do things like sweep the streets or deliver groceries or other necessities for neighbors too frail to handle such chores. Life can also get difficult in Rotterdam for parents who don't take sufficient interest in their children's' education. If they don't personally pick up their kids' report cards and discuss their individual performances with their teachers, their welfare payments can be punitively curtailed.

Once he had returned home, Saleh began thinking about whether any of those ideas could be applied to Berlin. A short time ago, he took stock in his office. He says the city can no longer afford to have a situation in which Turkish families are allowed to park their two-year-old children in front of televisions for hours and to have their older siblings then go to school and, instead of learning, harass fellow students from Romania by attempting to throw them into trash bins. He's heard examples of that kind of harassment and it angers him.

Sitting next to him as he expressed these ideas was Heinz Buschkowsky, the district mayor of Neukölln, a big Berlin neighborhood with a very large, predominantly Turkish immigrant population. For a time, Buschkowsky became a national name on talk shows for his outspoken views about integration failures in his neighborhood and elsewhere. A few years ago, Buschkowsky made a visit to Rotterdam and he traveled there again last year together with Saleh. The first time, however, few of his fellow members of the Berlin SPD were interested in hearing about his experiences. They once even demonstratively cancelled an invitation for him to appear in parliament. "Integration in Germany is a peerless success," he says, mimicking the words of party leaders at the time. He maintains that people have been denying reality in Berlin for years now and that they have simply squelched the conversation when people started to talk about the emergence of social flashpoints. "Wowereit has played a role in this as well," he says.

In the meantime, Saleh is already preparing the first steps within his coalition. They have already reached an agreement to vote on new rules under which parents can be fined up to €2,500 ($3,468) if they do not take their children to be given a mandatory language test at the age of four. New rules will also make it easier for the city to fine parents if their children are truant. Other tough rules are also on the drawing board.

"Today's integration policies," Saleh says, "will determine the prosperity of our society in the next 20 or 30 years."

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
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