WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT A MAYOR WHO ACTUALLY FIGHTS against senior levels of government in order to get a fair deal for a city? Palermo, Sicily, has just such a champion and his efforts are showing effect.
Leoluca Orlando began years ago by rescuing Palermo from the clutches of the Mafia at great risk to himself and his family – death threats were common. In fact, it was so bad that the local media labeled him “the walking corpse,” in anticipation of his assassination. Nevertheless he prevailed, reforming portions of the national justice system in the process.
He then undertook what he called the “second wheel” of his platform – engaging and empowering the citizenry of the city to organize and move forward with attempts at change. The defeat of Mafia control made it possible for average citizens to step up without fear. The next few years came to be known as the Palermo Spring – a time when the local and rich culture bloomed and introduced new creativity. As mayor, he believed that the only places where people were truly equal despite their level of wealth were civic and public spaces, and so he used them to inspire local citizens and turn them into civic champions. Orlando even gave it a brand: “culture of respect.”
Like most mayors he’s a multi-tasker. His efforts to promote urban democracy have seen him create some success in replacing partisan battles with multi-partisan cooperation – quite a feat. This was where he came up against senior levels of government more interested in party allegiances than policy that would actually work for his city. He used his background as a writer, actor, and civic organizer to build a momentum among citizens that forced the national and regional governments to make the changes required to give Palermo a chance at a new future of prosperity, openness and inclusion. He claims that all he really is looking for is “the civic renewal of his city,” and for that he needs citizens who believe they can lead that change.
It is one thing to overthrow the mafia, but his greatest accomplishment will be in how he got his city to believe in itself, despite its history of being at the lower end of the political totem pole. And for this he has received numerous awards from around the world, including the Human Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers.
Like other mayors, he repeatedly claims to love his city. But such words can remain merely a sentiment. Orlando has gone on to prove that love by giving his fellow citizens an open and working relationship to build their city together with him.
Politics has changed and the type of mayors we choose must change as well. Regardless of their platform, mayors that are finding success are doing so on the realization that power shared has greater chance than power monopolized. Head elected officials like Orlando are in the process of designing a new kind of citizen architecture – the framework of a new democratic exercise in which citizens discover common purpose in the process of turning their cities into breathing, organic entities. Any mayor or mayoralty candidate who claims to exclusively have a “plan” with which he or she will lead their city is a throwback to the past. The only visions that can succeed and last are now those that are shared. Everything else is just the same-old, same-old.