A hot­head who loves cap­i­tal­ism: Meet Brazil’s man of the hour

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

Ro­drigo Maia keeps deny­ing that he’s plot­ting to re­place Brazil’s em­bat­tled pres­i­dent. His own mother doesn’t quite be­lieve him.

As speaker of the Cham­ber of Deputies, Maia is, in fact, first in line to re­place Michel Te­mer, should Te­mer go the way of his ousted pre­de­ces­sor, Dilma Rouss­eff. Next week, Maia will pre­side over a vote on whether Te­mer will be tried on cor­rup­tion charges. Maia also has the power to ap­prove re­quests — of which there are sev­eral — to ini­ti­ate im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings.

That he has re­fused to do so hasn’t squelched spec­u­la­tion in the Na­tional Congress and the me­dia that he wants to de­throne Te­mer. Nei­ther have his own dec­la­ra­tions, nor the fact that his wife’s step­fa­ther, Welling­ton Mor­eira Franco, is of one of Te­mer’s clos­est aides. The speaker re­mains the un­likely cen­ter of po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion in Latin Amer­ica’s largest coun­try.

“It’s a ques­tion of be­ing in the right place at the right time,” said Ivan Va­lente, a law­maker from the So­cial­ism and Lib­erty Party. Cir­cum­stances can give you star power, “even if you are some­one with­out much pres­ence, charisma or sup­port” among the elec­torate.

In­deed, Maia, 47, might not at first glance seem to be pres­i­den­tial ma­te­rial. Soft-spo­ken — to the point of com­ing off as shy to some — he oc­ca­sion­ally dis­plays a ner­vous tick. He’s known for flashes of bad tem­per, such as when he cursed at one deputy and shoved an­other dur­ing a protest against a la­bor-re­form bill. Asked to name his son’s big chal­lenge, Ce­sar Maia, a for­mer mayor of Rio de Janeiro, had a swift an­swer: “Con­trol­ling his emo­tions.”

Some won­der if the speaker has the stay­ing power of a veteran like Te­mer, 76, who is still hang­ing on de­spite mount­ing op­po­si­tion among law­mak­ers and sin­gle-digit rank­ings in na­tional opin­ion polls. “Maia doesn’t have the chutz­pah or the ne­go­ti­at­ing skills of Te­mer,” said Ja­son Vieira, chief econ­o­mist of In­fin­ity As­set Man­age­ment. “I’m not sure an­other politi­cian would be able to sur­vive a sit­u­a­tion like this.”

For all that, Maia has fans in the lower house, where he was first elected to his post by a wide mar­gin a year ago. While his habit of re­peat­edly chang­ing his mind about vot­ing sched­ules has in­fu­ri­ated some, al­low­ing busi­ness to pile up can be shrewd, said Miro Teix­eira, a long­time law­maker from Rede. “De­lay keeps the in­ter­ested par­ties un­easy, and they start to seek him out. That way, he of­fers fa­vors to peo­ple.”

In a po­lar­ized po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, with around 26 par­ties in the lower house, Maia’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity to leg­is­la­tors from across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum is a pow­er­ful as­set. That’s taken a toll, though, Maia said in a GloboNews in­ter­view: Eat­ing two or three break­fasts, lunches and din­ners each day with dif­fer­ent deputies has ex­panded his waist­line.

Maia has been trans­formed in other ways in his time as speaker, said Julio Del­gado, a law­maker from the Brazil­ian So­cial­ist Party. “Ro­drigo used to be very in­tro­verted when it came to deal­ing with deputies, but his style has re­ally changed.” Now, “he’s see­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of be­com­ing pres­i­dent.”

Well, maybe one day. “I can see my­self as a can­di­date in two or three elec­tions’ time,” he told GloboNews. “But in the short-term, be­ing speaker gives me the chance of ful­fill­ing dreams that I never thought I would re­al­ize.” Maia de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this story.

So­cially con­ser­va­tive, a com­mited free-mar­ke­teer and mem­ber of the rightwing Democratas party, Maia is an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of the poli­cies put forth by Te­mer, though per­haps not clearly enough of Te­mer him­self. In a re­cent Twit­ter out­burst, the speaker went on about the im­por­tance of the pres­i­dent’s agenda with­out men­tion­ing the pres­i­dent, which didn’t go un­no­ticed by those ques­tion­ing his loy­alty.

That in­cludes his mom, who fre­quently sends him text mes­sages telling him “not to con­spire” against Te­mer, Maia told GloboNews.

“On my part there has been no at­tempt to jeop­ar­dize Pres­i­dent Michel Te­mer,” Maia said. But he also said that con­sid­er­ing the po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, it’s more im­por­tant to be seen an ob­jec­tive house leader than a Te­mer ally.

For what it’s worth, some op­po­si­tion leg­is­la­tors in­ter­ested in tak­ing Te­mer down said they don’t see Maia ac­tively an­gling to move into the pres­i­den­tial palace. “If he’d been ma­neu­ver­ing, he’d al­ready be in the pres­i­dent’s place,” said Car­los Zarat­tini of the Work­ers’ Party.

Born in San­ti­ago, where his fa­ther was liv­ing in self­im­posed ex­ile dur­ing Brazil’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, Maia at­tended col­lege in Rio. Af­ter a brief ca­reer in bank­ing, he fol­lowed his fa­ther into pol­i­tics and is in his fifth term as a deputy rep­re­sent­ing the state of Rio. The younger Maia hasn’t proved quite as pop­u­lar as his dad. Ce­sar Maia was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro three times; the son’s run for the po­si­tion in 2012 ended badly when he gar­nered just un­der 3 per­cent of the vote.

Te­mer’s fate will be de­cided by the lower house, which has the power to de­cide whether he should be tried on charges filed by the coun­try’s chief pros­e­cu­tor that cen­ter on what’s called pas­sive cor­rup­tion, in­clud­ing tak­ing a bribe via an in­ter­me­di­ary. He has de­nied wrong­do­ing.

The charge was lev­eled in con­nec­tion with the Op­er­a­tion Car­wash probe that has taken down many mem­bers of the busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal elite. Maia has been caught up in Car­wash too. He is one of dozens of high-rank­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and se­nior politi­cians now un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for al­legedly tak­ing bribes and il­le­gal cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions af­ter Supreme Court Judge Ed­son Fachin au­tho­rized new probes in May. Maia has said he will eas­ily prove his in­no­cence.

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