Berlin Mayor, Symbol of Openness, Has National App
Berlin Mayor, Symbol of Openness, Has National Appeal
FRESH from his never-in-doubt re-election as Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit was soaking up the vibe at Popkomm, a music-industry trade show where the conventioneers favor fishnet stockings and motorcycle boots. In short: a typical Berlin scene.
It is Mr. Wowereit’s kind of scene, too, though the sunny, 52-year-old mayor was trying hard to look statesmanlike as he toured the floor with a scrum of television cameras. Famous for once being photographed at a party sipping Champagne from an actress’s red pump, Mr. Wowereit politely declined the bubbly offered by the organizers, drinking water instead.
Only when he spied a bank of headphones did the mayor break into a grin. Strapping on a pair, he bobbed his head to a new release by the American hip-hopper Lupe Fiasco. Later, Mr. Wowereit, whose nickname is Wowi, confided that his favorite pop singer was Madonna.
Charming, sociable and openly gay, Klaus Wowereit (pronounced vo-vuh-rite) is the newest star in the German political firmament. It is a firmament short on stars. After his victory, the mass-market newspaper Bild ran a front-page headline asking, “Will Wowi Be the First Gay Chancellor?”
“Why not?” Mr. Wowereit said in an interview this week, when asked whether Germans were ready for a homosexual leader.
“This doesn’t have to do with a particular person, however,” he added. “It’s an abstract question. One could also ask: can Germany have a female chancellor? We’ve seen that, yes, we can.”
The election of Angela Merkel, a brainy physicist-turned-politician from eastern Germany, has scrambled the assumptions about what is possible in German politics. While Mr. Wowereit deflects speculation about succeeding her, he is one of the few politicians in the country with real momentum. And his more sober demeanor is a sign of his national ambitions.
“I believe I have support nationally because of my policies,” Mr. Wowereit said, noting that Berlin, with its aging population and fraying social safety net, is a microcosm of Germany as a whole.
Still, he acknowledges the obvious complications. While being openly gay may seem almost bourgeois in hip, anything-goes Berlin, it is viewed differently in a small village in Bavaria.
“The mere fact that we’re talking about it shows that it is still an issue,” said Mr. Wowereit, who disclosed his homosexuality in 2001 with the now-famous line, “I’m gay, and it’s good that way.”
It has certainly been good for him here, where he has become a cuddly symbol of Berlin’s openness and tolerance. When he took the stage to thank supporters from his Social Democratic Party on Sunday, he hugged his companion, Jörn Kubicki, a neurosurgeon 12 years his junior, saying, “Anyone who knows me knows that he hasn’t had it easy with me.”
At a time when German politicians are dodging difficult issues like health care reform, such forthrightness is appealing. In this often cranky city, two-thirds of the people approve of his job performance.
THE mayor’s popularity is even more remarkable given that Berlin is in many ways a shambles. It has a 17 percent unemployment rate — well above the national average — $77 billion in debt and an economy that has not grown in a decade. The last big private company with headquarters here, the drug maker Schering, was recently taken over by a rival in the Rhine Valley.
Mr. Wowereit, a lawyer who came to power in 2001 after a financial scandal, tried to stem Berlin’s red ink by trimming housing subsidies and the wages of government workers. But he barely made a dent, and the city has appealed to Germany’s highest court to force the federal government to bail it out.
Admirers note that Mr. Wowereit has been able to work in a coalition with the Party of Democratic Socialism, the old East German Communist Party, though he is now weighing whether to jilt it in favor of the Greens.
He also bucked local resistance to break ground earlier this month on a new international airport in Schönefeld, south of Berlin. The project, which Mr. Wowereit described as the major achievement of his first term, will generate 7,200 construction jobs a year between now and 2012.
Mr. Wowereit’s critics say he is a lightweight who has avoided tough choices. Even those sympathetic to him are hard pressed to point to a big idea, beyond the airport, that he has championed.
Berlin, he concedes, will never be able to attract the huge investments that would return it to its glory days between the world wars.
“The banks aren’t coming from Frankfurt,” Mr. Wowereit said. “They’re going to London. Volkswagen is not going to build a factory here. They’re building new factories in Eastern Europe or Asia.”
The only solution, he said, is for Berlin to play to its strengths as a swinging town, a magnet for culture and tourism. “This is the place to be at the moment, even more than London,” he said.
There are apparently very few visitors Mr. Wowereit would turn away: for the past two years, he has signed an official welcome message for a gathering of fetishists — a practice that prompted conservative politicians to accuse him of contributing to “moral degeneration.”
“We are poor but sexy,” Mr. Wowereit said in 2003, using another line that has become an unofficial slogan for Berlin. These days, he amends that, saying, “I’d rather be rich and sexy than poor and sexy.”
Part of the mayor’s appeal is that Berliners view him as a native son. Born in the working-class Tempelhof district to a single mother with five children, Mr. Wowereit was the first person in his family to go to college. He studied law and once dreamed of becoming a judge.
BUT after joining the Social Democrats, Mr. Wowereit burrowed into municipal politics. In 1984, he became the youngest member of Berlin’s city council. His hero is Willy Brandt, a mayor of West Berlin who later became chancellor and forged historic ties to East Germany in the 1970’s.
Mr. Wowereit’s party-hearty image is a source of some amusement to people who have known him for a long time.
“He used to never go to the parties,” said Michael S. Cullen, an American historian who has lived in Berlin since 1964 and advises the government on cultural affairs. “In 1995 and 1996, he was studying the Berlin budget day and night. He knew every line item.”
The mayor, Mr. Cullen suggests, became more extroverted after he disclosed his sexual orientation.
For his part, Mr. Wowereit said his busy social schedule consists mostly of promotional work on behalf of Berlin. His man-about-town image, he said, is largely a creation of the news media, and was exploited during the election by the Christian Democrats, in their fruitless effort to unseat him.
If he were not mayor, Mr. Wowereit said, his idea of a perfect Saturday night would be to stay home and read a book or watch television. At most, he might join a small group of friends for dinner.
“I’m 53 next month, and it’s not my thing to go to clubs and dance through the whole night,” he said in September. “That time is a little bit over.”