Ana Botella, Deeply Unpopular Madrid Mayor, A Study In Political Falls From Grace

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Madrid's Mayor Ana Botella
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks with Madrid Mayor Ana Botella, wife of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, during a ceremony to launch Aznar's book "Memories I" in Madrid. Reuters

Even the most ardent detractors of beleaguered Madrid Mayor Ana Maria Botella Serrano are stunned when they contemplate how steep her fall has been. After all, it was a mere 10 years ago that she stood at the apex of Spanish high society, mingling with royalty and celebrities as a glamorous philanthropy-minded wife of the country's conservative prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

But on Nov. 1 and the days afterward, Botella dumbfounded people by the way she handled one of the more sorrowful events in the city’s recent memory. At about 4 a.m. local time, American electro-house musician Steve Aoki was performing at a Madrid city-owned stadium filled to more than twice its legal limit when the giant crowd began stampeding. Three teenagers died then, and two more clung to life in intensive-care units. Over the ensuing days, however, Botella appeared neither by their hospital beds nor even in the city.

As Madrid grieved over the tragedy, news outlets reported that she was being massaged and otherwise pampered at a luxury resort in Portugal, sharing sauna treatments with multimillionaires and duchesses. Nor was Madrid's mayor on the job when the fourth teenager died -- and a local TV station reported that the stadium had not been inspected properly since 2006 and did not even have the necessary permits to host large events. Nor was the former first lady in Madrid when newspapers questioned why the event promoter, known as a contributor to the mayor's political party, had a sweetheart deal to run most large events in the city, despite owing tens of thousands of euros in back taxes.

Upon her return, Botella treated Madrid to what has become a vintage performance. Brash and unapologetic, she said at a news conference the week after the disaster that she would not resign and “at the moment, nobody” would be fired in her administration as a result of the tragedy. Asked if she regretted her spa trip to Lisbon in the middle of the crisis, she answered, “No.”

Unsurprisingly, those statements were greeted by derision. “Public opinion is where one would expect it to be: with the unconsolable parents of the young taken in the prime of their life,” Juan Bosco Martin Algarra, a popular blogger, wrote the day after the event. He added that he expects that someday Spanish authorities will seek to answer questions about who was responsible for the teenagers' deaths.

“Maybe by then Ana Botella will be enjoying a peaceful retirement,” Algarra noted. “I fear she’ll have to interrupt it to give some answers. If I were her, I’d find a good lawyer.”

It’s hard to recall now, but Botella was once extremely popular, during her husband’s eight years as Spain’s prime minister. She blended celebrity and ceremony -- “self-assured and perpetually smiling,” according to article by the Associated Press in 2002 -- displaying her trademark colorful fashion sense. She was appearing on television one day, kissing African AIDS babies the next. Botella could be seen promoting Spanish cultural treasures with foreign dignitaries or expressing genuine sympathy and remorse for the victims of terrorism. A wedding held for her only daughter in September 2002 drew the kind of attention reserved for royal events, with 1,000 guests packing El Escorial, the summer palace of King Juan Carlos I.

Back then, even the first lady’s slip-ups were treated in a benign and charitable fashion. A popular satirical television show at the time poked fun at her convoluted metaphors and linguistic blunders. She once memorably described the Cinderella story as “an example for our lives because of the values it represents,” but it was seen as merely one of her many well-intentioned non sequiturs.

But then Botella got bit by the ambition bug, and she made the mistake of believing that her deftness as a figurehead, as the wife of a relatively popular head of government during much of his administration, could easily translate into political and governing skills and that she could withstand the scrutiny that politicians endure.

On Jan. 9, 2003, the 48-year-old lawyer and mother decided to run for a seat on the Madrid city council on the Popular Party ticket. She won easily and was immediately baptized with the nickname "La Hilaria," a reference to the fact that she was following a similar path, from first lady to officeholder, as Hillary Clinton in the U.S.

But Botella decided to use her somewhat minimal political perch to offer up what Spaniards began to puzzlingly view as downright bizarre defenses of socially conservative ideology. In 2004, for example, she illustrated her opposition to gay marriage with a reference to fruits. Gay marriage is wrong, she said, because “it amounted to treating equally what is simply different. If two apples join, they give forth two apples. But if an apple and a pear join, they will never amount to two apples because they are different components. ... Man and wife is one thing, which is a marriage, and two men or two women would be a different thing altogether.”

A year later, gay marriage was legalized in Spain, with overwhelming public support.

Botella took on another conservative hot-button issue, abortion, with equal abandon. At a 2008 news conference, she said Spain needed to roll back abortion rights to the specifications of a restrictive 1980s law, because the current legal framework allowed “a seven-month-old child to be thrown into a shredder,” something she claimed she actually observed -- and, as she put it, “blushed” when she witnessed it.

Among the many barely printable angry responses to Botella’s social positions from her opponents, the most balanced may have been diatribes like this one: “Her mental structure is based on basic conservative ideas, always derived from common, absolutely rancid places, although garnished with ideas taken from some modern think tank,” La Nacion columnist Manuel Vicent wrote in 2003.

Beyond Botella’s social views, she drew fire for her performance on the city council. One of her duties as councilwoman was to be in charge of environmental issues, a portfolio that included everything from climate issues to public sanitation. Aside from being an early and outspoken climate-change skeptic, Botella once tried to blame the homeless and “alcoholic consumption in the streets” for the fact Madrid’s sidewalks were increasingly dirty -- not cutbacks in street-cleaning budgets or the preferential treatment given some of the city's tonier neighborhoods. There was also the time when, having to admit Madrid was breaking European Union rules on maximum acceptable air pollution levels, Botella argued that the particulate contamination was “not harmful to citizens’ health.”

To Spain’s intelligentsia, the country’s perhaps de minimus version of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had fallen to the status of a punchline, albeit a relatively harmless one. Rather than the quintessence of Spanish elegance and womanly virtue -- an exemplary mother and supportive wife -- she was seen as an entitled political spouse using connections for a go at the league tables, but failing at even small-time municipal politics.

Two events accelerated the already noticeable decline in Botella's public stature. The first was the global financial crisis that hit Spain in 2010 with a vengeance. Unemployment shot past 20 percent after having seemingly plateaued in late 2009. The central government's cost to borrow money in the global bond market soared. Home foreclosures jumped, reaching 12,000 per quarter from about 8,000 per quarter earlier in the crisis. The desperation many Spaniards began to experience in their daily lives translated into rage against high-profile political figures: On an average day now, there are at least 14 protest rallies blocking traffic in Madrid.

The second event that hastened her decline came in December of last year when Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon was appointed Spain's justice minister by incoming Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Having risen to vice mayor by this time, Botella became the 240th mayor of Madrid and the first woman to hold that post. Botella was no longer a somewhat bumbling annoyance in charge of a small corner of the Madrid city government; she was the CEO of Europe's third-largest city.

Botella didn’t disappoint her critics in her new role. In February, the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial revealed that one of Botella’s nieces, who had flunked a test for a job with Madrid’s social-services agency, had had her score revised sharply upward after the new mayor took office -- and she was given the position. And ExtraConfidencial.com and other Spanish media outlets have made much of the fact that while the country faces the worst economic conditions since World War II, Botella has 231 people working for her in City Hall, at an annual cost of €10.3 million in salaries. Among them are 30 staffers in the press office and a personal stable of 11 secretaries and aides, plus two drivers and a butler -- whose sole duty is to serve coffee to Botella and her guests. Meanwhile, her solution for Madrid’s budget imbalance, uttered in her first month in office, would be to fire municipal workers who are not involved in public safety or sanitation.

“I refuse to believe that a library would not open because of a lack of volunteers willing to run things,” El Mundo quoted the mayor as saying. “We have to be able to give back to society what society gives us.”

Botella was no less callous about Spain’s deepening foreclosure crisis. According to El Economista, she said the “law is there to be obeyed even in the saddest and most painful cases.” That same day, she lobbied City Hall to suspend specific tax laws for the benefit of foreign casino developers.

Indeed, her off-key responses to the economic woes of Spain in general and Madrid in particular are by now incomprehensibly routine. In October, El Pais reported she put forward five people without any experience in banking -- three of them candidates for political office from her party who had not been elected in the latest round of voting -- to fill government-controlled board seats at various savings-and-loans institutions, which are at the center of the financial storm sweeping the country.

And early in her mayoralty, after being accused by the political opposition of not having a plan to deal with the El Gallinero slum, Western Europe’s largest and filthiest, Botella sent in the bulldozers. Then, responding to the uproar, she visited the trash-strewn locale to work out a plan to help neighborhood residents with local charities. But when the agreement that emerged was criticized for a lack of concrete steps, she blamed uncooperative slum dwellers, pillorying them as “a village of itinerant Romanian gypsies, with mobility throughout the entire European territory and without known objectives, who dedicate themselves to marginal activities, lack documentation, and are used to state handouts," according to El Pais.

While making statements like that, Botella has not seen the dissonance in pandering to the rich, including American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major contributor to the Republican Party during the recent U.S. presidential election. Botella has openly wooed Adelson in an attempt to have him build a major gaming development in Madrid. In an unprecedented move last July, Botella had Madrid’s Museo del Prado closed for a day so Adelson and his aides could roam privately through one of the world’s most famous art collections.

But it was the Madrid stadium deaths last month and Botella’s insistence that no one needed to be held accountable for them that has become the last straw for many in Spain -- even the most powerful. According to the well-respected Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, Prime Minister Rajoy called Botella soon after the fourth teenager died and told her that heads absolutely had to roll. The newspaper cited anonymous sources in also saying that Rajoy had withdrawn all support for Botella to run for election to any public office in 2015 when her current term expires.

“The worst thing about a crisis is that you are at the mercy of what’s happening now -- you have to be able to get ahead and know where the shots are coming from,” the newspaper quoted Rajoy as telling Botella. “If not, you are lost, and that seems to be the case here.”

Over the past few days, Botella appears to have taken Rajoy’s words to heart -- at least, to a degree. The mayor has fired two people in charge of managing the stadium where the stampede occurred, although the official reason for the dismissals is that they hid from the mayor the cozy and lucrative long-term contract given to the event promoter.

And when the fifth teenager, who had been on life support since the Aoki concert, died at the end of November, Botella declared a “day of mourning and solidarity” and put out a statement saying, “I assure you that the behaviors that had a role in this tragedy will not be left unpunished.”

Which leads to the question -- not unthinkable now considering Botella’s position as a Spanish political pinata, deserved or not -- of whether Botella herself will be among those held responsible for the tragedy.

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