ATHENS — When she was campaigning for the office of the Regional Governor Attica, Rena Dourou of the major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) said people were amazed when she knocked on their door and asked for their vote.
“I don’t know whether it got me any votes,” she said. “But people were amazed to see me. They had never met a politician. They were touching me, saying, ‘You are Rena Dourou?’ she told the New York Times in an interview.
She brought her handshakes and her motto — “if you feel you have the life you deserve, don’t do anything and vote for the same old people” — all over the city, even to areas considered bastions of the ultra far right-wing Golden Dawn party.
With her unorthodox, American-style approach to campaigning, instead of hiding out of fear of angry voters as most Greek politicians do, Dourou persuaded just enough people to get 50.8 percent of the vote.
It was a startling upset and the biggest win yet for a party that only a few years ago was marginalized and had little chance to making any headway in traditional politics where the New Democracy Conservatives and PASOK Socialists had taken turns ruling for four decades.
Now she’s continuing to make waves, refusing to implement an evaluation of public workers demanded by international lenders and imposed by the coalition government led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy leader, and his partner, PASOK.
While the government says the evaluations are needed to weed out inefficient workers and pare a workforce bloated for decades by the ruling parties hiring needless employees in return for votes, Dourou – along with a gaggle of other Mayors and municipal officials mostly backed by SYRIZA – said it was a disguise to fire them and she refused.
She, and the other balking officials, face prosecution but she hasn’t backed down and her stance has made the government rethink its plan to set a quota that 15 percent of workers had failed evaluations – even if they hadn’t.
In a recent speech, she said that there would be zero tolerance for workers who lied about their credentials. But ferreting them out was her business. In her office, she said she had already begun proceedings against eight employees, cases that had been pending on her predecessor’s desk.
“Employees are going to have a harder time,” Dourou told the Times. “You have to be strict to get anything done. But I will do it my way.” Her stance has prompted criticism, including from a columnist who called her the “Duchess of Athens,” saying she has grown arrogant overnight.
She says she intends to change the mold of Greek politics, with rampant patronage, back door deals and a seemingly endless cycle of corruption and “rousfeti,” or mutual favors, the log rolling of mutually beneficial deals for politicians and their friends, even at the expense of national interests, a practice which has nearly destroyed the country and brought it to bankruptcy.
As she settled into office, she said her goal was simple: creating an open, functional government without the corruption and back-room deals that have been a way of life in this country. “At the end of five years,” she said, “the government of Attica will be like a government in other countries.”
CHANGE IS COMING
In a symbolic move, she said she’s going to move to a smaller office because hers is too big. “Look at this place,” she said. “It will take me until Monday just to get from my desk to the door. And downstairs, you should see the space people are working in. I am not saying this because I am leftist. People need space to do proper work.”
In some ways she’s making a bigger splash even than her party leader, Alexis Tsipras, whose adamant stance against the austerity measures Samaras imposed has given SYRIZA a lead of as much as 2.6 percent in recent polls and given the Leftists the once-unthinkable prospect of taking the top office and ruling Greece.
Even before the elections, Dourou, 39, had gained a reputation for toughness, at least in part for her performance during a live television show discussing election issues.
As the discussion got heated, Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris threw a glass of water in her face and the assaulted MP Liana Kanelli of the Communists before running away and hiding out so he couldn’t be arrested.
Dourou never lost her composure, a scene that thousands of Greeks watched on YouTube. While she waited to take office, she said, nobody approached her about anything. “They don’t have the guts,” she said laughing. “But they will come.”
She’s engendered a lot of resentment from the old school politicians used to getting their way. PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos, who’s also Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister – a reward for backing public worker firings – told a female member of Parliament that “she should be pregnant,” a sign that women aren’t wanted at the top.
As she was campaigning for office, a former PASOK deputy prime minister, Theodoros Pangalos, said in a radio interview that he could not stand seeing posters of Ms. Dourou’s “filthy face” all over Athens. He added that he would “like to see her campaign complete with a full-body picture of her with a bikini.”
In a ponytail and jeans, and at work long after business hours recently, Dourou simply sighs at the state of sexism in her country. Ms. Dourou is in a civil union with a businessman, Giannis Benisi, instead of a marriage because “it doesn’t have the limitations that a marriage does, most notably in case of a breakup, you don’t need lawyers and you don’t have to go through situations that might kill everything nice that you’ve experienced with your partner.”
She said she could have waited for the next national elections with the expectation of becoming a minister, but she wanted to run something. Though it is rarely done, she resigned from her seat in Parliament to campaign rather than get paid for a job she was no longer doing.
Born in Athens to a police officer and a stay-at-home mother, she says that in the ordinary course of things, she would have taken her place in the broad ranks of the Civil Service here.
But her parents spent heavily on their children’s education, making sure they had everything from ballet to language lessons. She speaks five languages, including Turkish.
Eventually, she ended up with a scholarship to Essex University in Britain, where her professors encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D., she said.
But she settled for a master’s degree in political science, eager to return home and go into politics. Over the years, she has held jobs in advertising and publishing, all the while spending nights and weekends devoted to SYRIZA. She won election to Parliament in 2012, and was the party’s point person on international affairs.
She says she would like to have children but, for now, has her hands full. “I don’t want to just dump the kid on my mom to raise,” she said.
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