ROME – Curbside weeds in Rome grow so tall, they cover car door handles, giving new meaning to the term urban jungle. With sidewalks impassable because of piles of uncollected trash, people resort to pushing baby strollers down the middle of pothole-pocked streets. Overflowing garbage bins attract wild boars, terrifying passersby.
As for mass transit, some subway stations in the commercial heart of the city, awaiting sorely needed escalator repairs, have been closed for months.
Rome’s first populist mayor, Virginia Raggi is running for a second term in an election Sunday and Monday, and the sorry state of basic municipal services such as trash pickup and street maintenance is a major issue in this city of ruins, just as it was the first time around.
In 2016, Raggi was a 37-year-old, little-known lawyer and city council member when elected. She quickly became one of the most prominent faces of the 5-Star Movement, a grass-roots populist phenomenon created a decade earlier by an Italian comic, and, as of 2018, the largest party in the national Parliament.
Raggi's election “was hailed as something savior-like. Great change was expected,'' said Paolo Conti, who for years has curated a letters-to-the-editors section, not surprisingly heavy with citizen complaints about trash and public transportation, in the Rome pages of the national newspaper Corriere della Sera.
After five years of Raggi's administration, plagued by frequent turnover of city commissioners and heads of public agencies, ”objectively, the city is in worse shape" than when she arrived, Conti said in an interview.
“Worse” is particularly damning, considering that when Romans elected her, they were desperate. They had taken to cleaning up Rome themselves, neighborhood by neighborhood, park by park, bagging trash, filling potholes and passing the hat to pay gardening businesses to pull weeds in playgrounds.
Romans then didn't even have a mayor. Raggi's predecessor, a surgeon-turned-politician, had resigned months earlier amid an expense account scandal in which he was later vindicated.
None of the 22 candidates for mayor this time is given any real chance of clinching more than 50% of the vote. That means the top two finishers will meet in a runoff two weeks later. Several polls, whose publication is banned in the last two weeks before the election, have indicated that at most, 15% of voters want five more years of Raggi, though a large percentage of people said they were undecided.
Nadia Titti, walking her dog in an overgrown field near towering low-income public housing in Tor Bella Monaca, a neighborhood on the city's eastern edge long considered the turf of drug dealers, said Raggi didn’t get her vote the first time and won't get it now.
Titti lamented that people from other neighborhoods where garbage is piling up have taken to dumping their broken appliances and other trash along Tor Bella Monaca’s streets.
Others argue Raggi deserves a second mandate.
Flavia Vauro, 21, was too young to vote in 2016 but is eager to cast a ballot for Raggi. “Errors were made, but there were also many accomplishments," she said.
Vauro, a university student, cited the brand-new buses she takes to campus, instead of the older vehicles that have been known to break down or burst into flames. “In these last five years there has been a tangible change” for the better, Vauro said.
Raggi and her rivals have been campaigning heavily in Tor Bella Monaca and other low-income neighborhoods. She owes her populist victory in 2016 largely to votes from these outlying areas, and she has pronounced herself the “mayor of peripheries.”
“In these five years, I worked on lot on the peripheries,” Raggi recently said.
She boasted that she brought street lights for the first time to some of these neighborhoods. During one of her appearances in one such “periphery,'' she recalled, ”people came out of their apartment buildings with tears in their eyes" in gratitude.
Raggi turns defensive about the out-of-control weeds. Since 2000, no new gardeners have been hired by the city, and when she took office, “they didn't even have the tools” to properly do their job tending to Rome's many parks and other green spaces, she said.
As for citizens' trashing of the municipal garbage collection agency Ama, Raggi said that when she became mayor, Ama was a debt-ridden mess. It had “13 years of falsified balance sheets. We worked a lot to clean up their finances," she said.
Still, in January, Ama cut off funding to local districts to cut down the weeds.
When traffic practically vanished during the very first strict months of Italy’s pandemic lockdown, road crews had a rare opportunity to work 24/7 filling crater-like potholes without causing tie-ups. But the lockdown is over and the holes largely remain, tripping up motor scooter riders, sometimes with fatal results.
Asked about the long closings of entire subway stations for maintenance work, Raggi shot back: “You can’t order a new escalator on Amazon.”
Three years ago, an escalator at a central subway station went out of control as Russian soccer fans, in town for a match, rode it, and several people were injured.
In Tor Bella Monaca, some residents expressed satisfaction at Raggi's campaign to evict undeserving tenants from public housing. A police roundup in September, for example, removed an alleged drug dealer with ties to organized crime.
After that eviction, “we are breathing easier,’’ said Tiziana Ronzio, who lives in public housing and created a tenants association to foster pride in their building and neighborhood.
Still, Ronzio gave the mayor a mixed review. Raggi "didn't make the city function" well, she said. But she quickly added: “Whoever becomes mayor will have it hard.”
AP journalist Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.