BERLIN, Germany — Sitting in a diner in the working-class suburb of Spandau, Raed Saleh smiles and nods to acquaintances as he reels off plans for transforming this city.
Getting them right would require finding a balance between tackling social issues and creating wealth, says the 36-year-old Palestinian-born politician. He hopes to be the first immigrant to become mayor of a major German city.
“Social democracy is the art of keeping the gap as small as possible between rich and poor, top and bottom, men and women, healthy and sick,” he says.
That leftist message may not sound like part of a winning strategy for Saleh’s once venerable Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has seen its position in German politics decline in the last decade.
Although the party still controls nine of 16 German state governments, its fortunes have steadily declined under the country’s leadership by the very popular Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Now with Berlin’s current mayor, the SPD’s Klaus Wowereit, slipping in the polls almost daily, the Social Democrats risk losing even in their stronghold Berlin.
But Saleh, a slim, handsome man with a quick, crooked smile, isn't your typical immigrant — or your average Social Democrat.
Known for singing German folk songs and a tough love strategy for the city's welfare moms, he’s becoming the SPD’s newest hope.
One of nine siblings, Saleh moved here with his family at age 5 and flipped burgers at Burger King before rising to become manager then entering politics.
His street cred may help the SPD, which was once virtually unassailable in Berlin, but is now fighting a rearguard action against the CDU across the country.
Merkel's party extended its lead to 42 percent of the popular vote during last year’s national election compared with 34 percent in 2009, while the SPD flatlined.
“It used to be the party of the urban voters,” says Peter Matuschek, head of political research at the Forsa Polling Institute. “But in general, the SPD is far from the strength it had two or three decades ago.”
Voters believe the party is preoccupied with internecine battles and divorced from community issues, according to a recent Forsa poll conducted for the daily Berliner Zeitung.
In Berlin, no less than two-thirds of respondents say Wowereit has to go.
That has as much to do with the party’s performance as his own mistakes, Matuschek says.
“So far the voters don't see that they're focusing on the everyday issues like education, infrastructure and all the problems the city has,” he says.
An openly gay politician once considered chancellor material, Wowereit presided over Berlin's economic comeback since becoming mayor in 2001. But his fortunes have flagged amid accusations he’s something of a champagne socialist and his tarring by a tax evasion scandal involving his culture secretary, who resigned in February.
However, he’s been hurt the most by his showcase public works project, the building of a new Berlin airport, which is hopelessly behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
That doesn’t mean the going will be easy for Saleh. Polls show him trailing two other SPD candidates in the race to replace “Wowie.”
But Saleh — arguably the city’s most charismatic Social Democrat who’s been the party's parliamentary leader since December 2011 — is only just now hitting the headlines. The state elections that will determine the next mayor are scheduled for 2016, more than a year away. And in an increasingly immigrant-oriented city, the candidate promises more than a clean slate.
An old-school grassroots candidate, he's focusing on bread-and-butter issues and community activities polls suggest voters are keen on.
He has already spearheaded a move to buy back the city water infrastructure after a partial privatization in 1999 saw prices skyrocket.
And he's pushing a similar move for the electricity grid.
However, with Merkel's conservatives in ascendance, his biggest appeal, in an unexpected way, could be the color of his skin.
Along with conventional but popular initiatives such as a midnight soccer program that keeps youngsters off the streets and a huge boost in funding for special schools for children from immigrant backgrounds, Saleh's street cred has freed him to push the SPD toward pragmatic policies that sound, well, conservative.
He started a program called “Strong Without Violence” that sends immigrant teenagers on ride-alongs with policemen and trips to Auschwitz in order to make them see themselves as part of Germany's past as well as its future.
After a meeting with Rotterdam's Morocco-born mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb last year, he's also leveraged his immigrant status to push for “tough love” for the city's welfare recipients.
He wants to require families to send their children to nursery school in exchange for receiving benefits, and institute language-proficiency tests for parents like the ones given children.
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The party has already agreed on a $3,500 fine for parents whose children fail to take the test.
That’s a radical change for a party that’s always preached integration but never made much headway achieving it. But such policies work in Rotterdam, says Saleh, who believes they would do just as well here.
“Too often, if you ask a teenager in Berlin where he’s from, he’ll say, 'I'm Serbian' or 'I'm Turkish,' or 'I'm from Nigeria,'” he says. “But if you ask people in Rotterdam, whether they’re children or adults, they’ll tell you they’re Rotterdamers.”
“That's what I want for Berlin.”