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Personal passion powers Monopoli’s mayoral race

By PAMELA HASTEROK with photos by DON LINDLEY

Angelo Annese delivers a fiery speech to close his winning campaign.

MONOPOLI – Even election campaigns here are a matter of the heart.

The two major mayoral candidates in this week’s election offered completely different platforms and came from vastly different backgrounds. Yet voters often were torn between them. Why? Because they are friends with both men. The choice was personal, a question of whom they know better, whom they trust more, regardless of politics.

Conservative candidate Angelo Annese was born into one of the wealthiest families in Monopoli and married into another. Though young and unproven, he hoped to ride the coattails of populist anger so evident in the recent national elections and continue the conservative party’s 10-year grip on city hall.

Nuccio Contento ran from the left, a career-long public servant offering up a platform of more fairness in distributing government largesse. (Three other men ran for mayor, but hardly mounted campaigns.)

Don and I followed Monopoli’s city hall elections with particular interest because we wanted to participate in such an important civic event and to support our friend Guiliana Giangrande, who ran for city council.

But mamma mia, it’s complicated. If you thought Italian bureaucracy was incomprehensible just try their elections. Even locals don’t fully understand the process.

And who can blame them? How does one make sense of a system that awards a council seat to a candidate without the most votes? Chalk it up to a chaotic political structure that allows not just official parties to field candidates, but splinter groups as well. It also permits candidates to run on the slate of their choice whether or not they share its political views.

On the mayoral front at least, the lines were clear. The two candidates provided a striking contrast, with the tall, confident Annese working the crowd into a fever pitch over perceived injustices, while he himself is a moneyed landowner. Meanwhile, Contento, slight and middle-aged, would adjust his glasses (and joke about it) to better read his manifesto for caring for all the people of Monopoli, ever the soft-spoken bureaucrat.

Just like Monopoli itself, the campaigns overflowed with small-city charm. Rallies were staged in the city’s central square, announced in the morning by a small car carrying tiny rooftop speakers and blaring raucous music. Friends supporting different candidates good naturedly razzed each other before the vote. Candidates popped up in odd places – the beach, the fish shop, the country market – to hand out pamphlets and listen to residents’ gripes. Contento supporters would serenade him at the end of each speech with a pop song that echoed his name.

Local elections here are short and inexpensive by U.S. standards, allowing everyone from the manager of a health food store to a housewife to a social worker to try their hand at city council. They’re also family affairs, with babies, teenagers and grandparents showing up in force at lectures by supportive luminaries, evening rallies and fundraising parties complete with beer, panzerotti and line dancing.

The major issues? Garbage collection ranked high, with Contento inveighing against the fruit crates used to prop open public dumpsters. The importance of labor for the area’s many farms inspired Annese to call for more help for agricultural families. Both candidates promised more beach parking, a hot-button issue aimed at locals accustomed to convenient parking.

But beneath small town issues, a real struggle lurked. Anyone who lives in a coastal city knows what it is – growth. How will an elected leader guide the city’s development? Five years ago, the conservative mayor and council approved a development plan for the city’s port and historic center. They allowed landowners to convert homes into small businesses, boosting renewal in the old town.

But the commercial gain came at the cost of its residential character, with bars and sandwich shops frequently elbowing out homes. Residences in the centro have become increasingly commercial, with the number of B&Bs and rental apartments leaping from a handful to more than 100 in a few years.

On the Friday night before the vote, Annese gave a rousing final speech, touting this as progress and broadly promising to continue developing the area for tourism.

Contento followed an hour later, entering the main square with a band and a crowd of followers. He credited the plan with rejuvenating the historic center, but called for more parks, more affordable housing and more amenities for the public.

Monopoli residents showed their passion for their city at the polls – more than two-thirds cast ballots. Annese’s fiery speeches and localized fealty to Forze Italia’s conservative policies propelled him to a convincing victory, giving his party another five years in office.

Local politics may be confusing, but voters were crystal clear – their hearts remain with the conservatives.

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