Open City: A Q&A with Ignazio Marino

Ignazio Marino was elected Mayor of Rome, Italy in June 2013. A renowned transplant surgeon, who spent 20 years practicing medicine in the United States, Marino returned to his native country a decade ago and began a career in politics, getting elected a Senator as a member of the centre-left Democratic Party in 2006.

At a recent reception in Manhattan co-hosted by DL21C and Circolo PD, City & State’s Morgan Pehme and Alexis Grenell spoke with Marino about Bill de Blasio, the differences between American and Italian politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and, of course, soccer.

The following is an edited transcript.

CITY & STATE: What lessons did you take from your time living in America to your political career in Italy?
IGNAZIO MARINO: The system in Italy and the United States are very, very different from many points of view. For example, the United States is possibly the richest country on the planet and yet does not provide medical assistance to all the citizens.

There are a number of citizens without healthcare in this country—the number is as large as almost the entire population of Italy. On the other hand, a good lesson that I took back from this country to my country is the fact that, in general, it’s not important where you come from, what is your last name, what is the color of your skin or your religion. If you’re good at what you do, you will be supported and you will advance in society and in your career. In Italy this is much more problematic and the culture of giving the right prize to whoever is making all the efforts to succeed is not so straightforward as it is in this country. So there are good things here and good things on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

C&S: Mayor Bloomberg implemented a number of bold health initiatives, some of which, such as the smoking ban, have taken hold in Europe as well. Given your background as a physician are there any novel health initiatives that you will aim to enact in Rome?
IM: I don’t want to disappoint you, but the ban on smoking in public places started in Italy before it started in New York City. In 2002 a law was passed in our country, and it was really a revolutionary law, because smoking was prohibited in any indoor places. Obviously, Mr. Bloomberg did more about that. He made a number of decisions in healthcare and issues that are related to healthcare like nutrition, which I believe were very bold, but also very, very good. I’m looking at the change that will happen in this town with a new mayor with a lot of interest, because this town grew tremendously from the economic point of view during the tenure of Mr. Bloomberg, but as I was landing in New York City today, I was shocked by reading on the front page of <em>The New York Times</em> that in New York City there are 22,000 kids [who are] homeless. Obviously, this is a huge problem that needs an answer.

C&S: You spent only $32,000 on your campaign, compared to a half a million dollars by your opponent. This sum is almost inconceivable to Americans, given the massive amount of money spent on campaigns in this country, even in local elections.
IM: $32,000 was the cost of the primaries. Then when I ran for the real game, the amount of money was about $350,000, which was much less than the millionaire budget used by my main opponents. But what we decided to do was to use mainly social networking, Internet, this kind of communication. A lot of people thought that that was going to be a losing choice. Instead, I think a lot of people today look at these social networks more than at a newspaper or other media. If you ask a teenager what is going on, what are the main news [stories] in his or her country today, I’m pretty sure that that teenager would be able to answer the question, [even though] she or he did not read any newspaper and probably did not watch any news on TV. They learn whatever you need to learn by other means.

C&S: On that note, you make good use of Twitter and you even have a hashtag #opencampidoglio [Ed. Note: Campidoglio is shorthand for Rome’s City Hall]. This seems to be part of an effort by you to counteract the corruption that has characterized so much of Italian politics. What have you done to bring greater transparency to government in your city?
IM: I can give you a practical example. I just approved the budget less than a week ago, and for the first time ever, during the last discussion on the floor, we decided not to accept any amendments where money would be given directly through the constituency of a single politician elected in the general assembly. Usually, in order to get your majority to vote or the opposition to not be too aggressive, the system that was used was [in] the last day or the last two or three days, an amount of money [would be] distributed to the different politicians in different parties so they could use [it to please] their constituency. I said, “Look, I’m ready to go home if we do this.” And we were able not to do that.

C&S: It seems like you are trying to change the culture through your actions. For instance, you ride a bicycle to work to promote a greener approach to transportation, and you’ve turned the road separating the Coliseum and the Forum into a pedestrian plaza. These efforts sound similar to those undertaken by our transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn. Have you looked at other cities as a model for Rome?
IM: The only thing that I know how to do is to study, so I study a lot of different models. For example, my friend Bertand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, in the last 10 years has changed completely the way of managing transportation in Paris. Right now he has 24,000 public bikes, and every single day 150,000 people ride on one of these bikes in Paris. This changed tremendously the traffic and all the problems related to [it]. I bike every day, going to work and going to meetings. I joke with the people working with me, because usually I [arrive] on time and they get to [our] appointments late, because they drive a car. I wanted from the very beginning to establish a new style, and I’m the first mayor of Rome that does not have an escort, that does not have a car with police following me. I go around in the town like any other citizen, and I think this is perceived well by the population.

C&S: There have been a lot of articles in the American media that Italians are excited about the election of Mayor-elect de Blasio. Is that hype or is that feeling real?
IM: There was a lot of attention during the entire campaign.

C&S: You are meeting with Mayor Bloomberg while you are in New York City. Do you intend to meet with Mayor-elect de Blasio as well?
IM: I did ask for a meeting with Bill de Blasio, but at the present time I understand he doesn’t want to meet with anybody because he’s working as hard as possible in order to get settled in the government.

C&S: You are a great fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and often quote lines from them. What is your favorite Arnold movie?
IM: Terminator 1 [Laughs.]

C&S: And, lastly, what do you think are Roma’s Scudetto chances? [Ed. Note: For the uninitiated, this is a critical soccer question.]
IM: I’m not going to discuss that, because people in Rome don’t like [it when I] discuss [Roma’s] Scudetto chances.