CLOSE UP Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin.
CLOSE UP Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin.
The Glamor Guy
When money is tight, the conventional response is to cut back on frivolous expenditure. Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, is anything but conventional. Long-term population loss has ravaged municipal finances since reunification in 1990. The divided East Berlin and West Berlin received hefty subsidies from their respective cold-war governments, but when the Wall came down in 1989, East Germany simply disappeared and the German government, then in Bonn, ended subsidies to West Berlin. Some 100,000 jobs there disappeared and 30,000 Berliners moved to the suburbs, draining the tax base and pushing the city's debt up to €59.4 billion. Wowereit, 51, a member of the Social Democratic party (spd), was forced to close swimming pools, ask teachers to work longer hours without more pay, impose a hiring freeze for some municipal employees, and consolidate the city's three opera houses.
But at the same time, Wowereit has been investing in Berlin as what the mayor describes as a "city of glamour." When Universal Music moved its German headquarters from Hamburg to Berlin, he grabbed the chance to bolster Berlin as a city of music, culture and creativity. He lured the annual youth fashion trade show, Bread & Butter, away from Cologne, and he encouraged Hollywood directors to shoot films like The Bourne Supremacy and the upcoming Mission Impossible III in the capital. These moves have helped Berlin's economy, but it's the cachet Wowereit's after. "The most decisive aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin," he says. "I like to compare Berlin to London in the swinging 1980s. London was in a bad economic situation but had a great deal of creativity and a positive mood."
And Berliners are starting to feel more positive about their city, too. Wowereit's promotion of everything from techno parades to nights out at the opera has given Berliners a new appreciation of the capital's cultural richness. And that's having a knock-on effect in bringing visitors to the city. In 2004, almost 6 million tourists came to Berlin, nearly 19% more than in 2003. "Wowereit's strength lies in the fact that he's not timid in dealing with the media," says Nicolas Zimmer of the opposition Christian Democratic Union. "He can sell issues."
It doesn't hurt his sales pitch that he's lived in Berlin all his life. Raised in the Lichtenrade district near the Berlin Wall, Wowereit was the first member of his family to go to high school, an opportunity he has always attributed to the education policies of the spd. He joined the party at 18, and rocketed through the ranks. At 31, he became the city's youngest municipal councillor in Berlin's Tempelhof district, and in 1995 he was elected to the city's parliament.
In June 2001, Wowereit took his biggest, and bravest, step yet. Worried that a tabloid newspaper was about to publish details of his personal life, he proudly declared in a televised speech that, "I'm gay, and that's a good thing." Until then such openness had been unprecedented in Germany, and Wowereit was the first top politician in the country to out himself as being homosexual. After the speech, the spd formally nominated him as its mayoral candidate and later that week — after a financial scandal toppled the city's conservative-led government — Wowereit took over as acting mayor.
Though Wowereit remains personally popular, many people criticize his financial management. He is seeking money from the federal government, arguing that it's simply not possible to dig Berlin out of its current hole. But critics say the mayor has made that hole deeper by devoting just 1% of the budget this year to economic development, less than is spent on subsidizing culture and sports, and allowing the expansion of Schönefeld airport — a key factor in attracting foreign investment — to be delayed by planning blunders. "It's a mistake to focus so much on service industries and not do more to strengthen the city's industrial base," says Dieter Vesper, an economist with the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.
Wowereit shrugs off suggestions that he should spend less time in front of TV cameras and more time in corporate boardrooms. "This kind of promotion is part of my personality, but it's also important to show the savoir vivre you can feel that makes the city so attractive internationally," Wowereit says. And since taking office, he has emphasized that Berlin's economic future depends as much on science and technology as it does on entertainment and services. So he's a big promoter of biotech and information technology, initiating the €19.5 million profit program to support innovation and contributing city-owned buildings to the Max Delbrück Center, which now houses Germany's highest concentration of biotech companies. "Even though the financial and economic situation of a city may be bad," Wowereit says, "you must show a sense of enjoyment in life."