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Less than stellar reviews for Rome's 5-Star neophyte mayor

Associated Press Associated Press 19/09/2016 By FRANCES D'EMILIO, Associated Press
FILE - In this Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016 file photo, Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Stars Movement, performs in Milan, Italy. The day the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement triumphed in Rome’s mayoral election, its exultant founder, comic Beppe Grillo, immediately turned his supporters’ sights on the next destination for what he calls their ‘’mission impossible airplane” soaring into national power. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Tuesday Feb. 2, 2016 file photo, Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Stars Movement, performs in Milan, Italy. The day the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement triumphed in Rome’s mayoral election, its exultant founder, comic Beppe Grillo, immediately turned his supporters’ sights on the next destination for what he calls their ‘’mission impossible airplane” soaring into national power. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

ROME — The day the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement triumphed in Rome's mayoral election, its exultant founder, comic Beppe Grillo, immediately turned his supporters' sights on the next destination for what he calls their "mission impossible airplane" — soaring into national power.

But early reviews of the new 5-Star mayor, Virginia Raggi, have been anything but stellar, leading some to wonder if her bumbling administration might end up eclipsing the Movement's dream of having one of its own in the premier's office.

Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer whose political resume before becoming Rome's first female mayor consisted of a stint as a city councilwoman, swept away Premier Matteo Renzi's Democratic candidate in a mayoral election runoff in June to become the "anti-party" 5-Star's most prominent local office holder yet.

Three months into the job, Raggi is struggling to assemble her team at the city hall atop ancient Capitoline Hill.

Her choice for chief of staff exited after an uproar over an exorbitantly high salary, an embarrassment for the Movement, which rails against the political elite. While Rome sinks in debt, Raggi still is sifting through resumes to pick a budget czar.

The local mass transit agency, ATAC, has taken to cannibalizing buses for spare parts because suppliers have stopped filling orders over unpaid bills. One hot day this summer, 800 buses broke down along their routes.

Meanwhile, children in a rundown, outlying part of town took to amusing themselves on school vacation by counting rats near a trash container. "Fifteen, 16. Sixteen rats, guys," one boy says in a much clicked-on video the children made and posted on the internet.

Rome's patronage-tainted garbage collection agency, AMA, needs fixing, making Raggi's choice for city environment commissioner another critical one. But earlier this month, Raggi told Parliament's watchdog commission on criminal infiltration of environmental activities that she had known for two months that her pick for the job, a woman who had served for years as a consultant to the trash agency, was under investigation. Commission officials said Rome prosecutors told them they are investigating the commissioner for suspected unauthorized management of handling of refuse.

It was a dismaying admission for the Movement, which boasts of transparency and insists that its office-holders step down if they are implicated in criminal probes.

Instead, Raggi has dug in, refusing to fire the commissioner.

"Let's go forward, with courage. We will change Rome and the country," Raggi wrote on her Facebook page Friday.

Her office did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

For sure, Raggi inherited a monumental mess.

Rome's previous mayor, a Democrat, resigned midway through his term when some in his own party lost faith he could rescue the city from years of moral and physical filth. The mayor before him, a former neo-Fascist street fighter, has been implicated in a scandal involving allegations that local politicians, bureaucrats and criminal gangs schemed to profit off lucrative city contracts.

Grillo's forces are widely expected to be Renzi's chief challenger for the premier's office in parliamentary elections in 2018, or perhaps sooner, if the center-left leader's government stumbles on an ambitious reform agenda that has alienated some in his Democratic Party.

So opinion polls are being closely watched to see if Raggi's inexperience might erode Movement support nationwide. Recent polls indicate her rocky start could have cost the 5-Stars a few percentage points. Grillo himself is ineligible for public office because of a manslaughter conviction resulting from a car accident.

Grillo has promised to closely monitor Raggi's performance, essentially rebuffing some loudly grumbling lawmakers and city councilmembers who worry the mayor could taint the Movement's reputation for change and improvement and are starting to wonder if she should go.

For now, Romans wearily wait for better times.

"These are problems that piled up over the years, so you need to give (Raggi) time," 5-Star supporter Maria Vicentini said while waiting for her bus at a stop across from City Hall. "The broken buses need to be repaired. All the garbage rot must be removed."

Vicentini added that the moral rot exposed in the corruption scandals "also needs time" to be removed.

Waiting at the same bus stop, lifelong Roman Sergio Fiormonte says he is not dissatisfied with Raggi, but allows "that nothing has changed from the last mayor to the one now."

Ticking off the familiar traffic, public transportation, and trash collection problems, Fiormonte, who describes himself as apolitical, ventured: "I think you need a magic wand to resolve them" after decades of what he called "non-administration."

Possibly tarnishing the 5-Star sheen could be a flurry of closed-door huddles over what to do about Raggi, including one led in Rome by Grillo with members of the Movement's "directorate." In the past, the Movement, keeping to a promise to supporters, has streamed important meetings live.

Massimo Franco, a political analyst for the Corriere della Sera newspaper, told The Associated Press that while Raggi is off to a "fragile" start, she will hang in there "because there isn't a true alternative."

The Movement's rank-and-file, who pick candidates online instead of in traditional primaries, also are likely to prove fiercely loyal to their office-holders, according to Erik Jones, a professor of European Studies and International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna.

"They don't judge them on their governing prowess," Jones said. Instead, "they judge them on their authenticity."

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Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio

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