PALERMO, Italy — Of the last two men to sit in Sicily’s palatial governor’s office, one is up on criminal charges and the other is doing hard time. Enter their successor, Rosario Crocetta — the unlikeliest politician ever to govern Cosa Nostra country.
Back when he was mayor of a coastal town plagued by mob violence, Crocetta took on the dons, combating the ingrained practice of pizzo, or forced protection payments, while helping put hundreds of gangsters behind bars. His anti-mafia revolution led crime boss Daniele Emmanuello to call for his assassination, with police subsequently arresting a series of mobsters for plots against his life.
Since winning the governor’s job nine months ago, Crocetta has taken his crusade island-wide, kicking a hornet’s nest as he strengthens anti-mafia laws and takes aim at the cronyism, waste and corruption that turned Sicily’s treasury into the gift that kept giving. But to get this far, the 62-year-old former Communist with a penchant for sea-blue spectacles first had to tackle another powerful adversary: masculine stereotypes in Italy’s macho south.
“I’m homosexual, which I call a gift from God, and no, I didn’t hide it one bit!” he said, dangling a lit Marlboro and rearing his head back in a raucous laugh. Talking about his successful campaign for governor, he said, “the fact that I’m here is almost inconceivable. Even I’m surprised.”
Across Europe, openly gay politicians are cracking the pink ceiling as never before, winning in recent years the prime minister’s jobs in Belgium and Iceland and holding the high post of foreign minister in Germany, the region’s powerhouse. Even in Italy — the only major nation in Western Europe without any form of legal recognition for same-sex couples — a gay candidate, Nichi Vendola, won the governorship of Apulia, in the Italian south, seven years ago. Despite still deep resistance in Italy to gay-rights laws, Vendola easily won reelection and is now a national kingmaker on the Italian left.
And yet Crocetta’s win in Sicily — a conservative bastion of the Catholic Church, machismo and the mafia — has left even Italian gay rights advocates flabbergasted, upending conventional perceptions of Italy’s south as less socially progressive than the more prosperous north. In fact, when measured by the number of openly gay regional presidents (the position officially held by Crocetta, which is roughly equivalent to that of a U.S. state governor), the south is ahead of the north by a score of 2 to 0.
“Having Crocetta in Sicily is like having an openly gay man elected governor in Alabama,” said Ivan Scalfarotto, a member of the national parliament and a Milan-based gay rights advocate. “But the most telling point is that his sexuality became a small detail for voters. This was about what he had done” against the mafia.
In Sicily, Crocetta’s sexuality has courted less controversy than other aspects of his political persona. His harshest critics call him a grandstanding populist with a flair for the dramatic who will stop at nothing to score political points. Decorum is also not a quality he seems to highly prize. Last month, he showed up at a World War II commemoration ceremony more than an hour late, then piqued the ire of the visiting U.S. dignitaries by saying Allied forces had destroyed his family home. He was playing to his leftist base, his opponents say, when he temporarily suspended construction of a U.S. military satellite dish citing a possible health risk.
Nello Musumeci, the right-wing opponent he beat in November, insists Crocetta is a flash in the pan who won because Italy’s economic crisis and a series of corruption scandals had soured voters on traditional politicians.
“At any other time, he would have been seen as an alien in Sicily, not a revolutionary,” groused Musumeci.
To that, Crocetta simply shrugs, offering his own interpretation of victory. By choosing him, Sicilians proved themselves ready to embrace a “radical” solution to the age-old scourge of the island’s crime families.
“Freedom is about the moment you stand up and rebel,” Crocetta said. “Sicily has stood up and is on its feet. What is happening here? A cultural revolution. I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but it’s about time we tried.”
Armed with a cabinet that is dominated by women and includes ethnic and sexual minorities, Crocetta has canceled tainted state contracts, appointed an anti-mafia judge to head a major public procurement department and pushed a law to aid witnesses to mafia crimes. He has also opened channels of communication with the national prosecutors office in Palermo that officials there say have led to the opening of 20 probes.
He has a 24-hour security detail, and a strategy for protection that involves frequently changing sleeping arrangements. His largest task so far, he said, has been unraveling a maze of millions of euros in misspent funds and bad state deals left by his predecessors.
“Everybody wants me,” he said, comically complaining in his office when an aide slips a note informing him of yet another phone call.
“Oh, not her,” he said with a grimace when informed who is on the line. “She’s such a neurotic, and her son is practically gay.”
In looks and manner, think Harvey Fierstein, if Harvey Fierstein were playing the part of an anti-mafia Sicilian governor and going for the Oscar. His sexuality rarely became a dominant issue during his governor’s campaign, but it was an undercurrent.
A right-wing paper routinely referred to him as “the gay candidate for governor.” His political opponents, Crocetta said, secretly distributed doctored photos of him supposedly engaged in sex acts. At one point, he made national headlines when he pledged to abstain from sex and “marry Sicily” if elected to the post. He described the comment — taken literally across Italy — as a sarcastic response to a journalist too interested in his private life.
“It was the biggest idiocy I’ve ever heard in my life,” Crocetta said of the national obsession with his “chastity vow.” “Of course I didn’t mean it. Well, at least the part about not having sex. I am married to Sicily.”
Like President Obama on the issue of race, Crocetta is caught in the vortex between those who see him as too gay and those who see him as not gay enough. He authorized the use of public funding for this year’s Gay Pride festival in Palermo, and became the first Sicilian governor ever to attend it. But he has not put gay-rights laws toward the top of his agenda. He said he personally supports gay marriage, but “Sicily is not ready for all this.”
Crocetta, the son of a poor tradesman and a seamstress mother, said his vendetta against the mafia took shape decades ago. While working at a Sicilian petrochemical plant, he said he discovered the depth of the mafia’s infiltration in local business. In 1990, he was outraged by a mafia hit on an arcade in his home town of Gela that left eight boys dead. Two years later, the town government was dissolved by national authorities for being hopelessly in the pocket of organized crime.
In 2002, he ran for mayor of Gela and was declared the winner a year later due to electoral fraud. He set up a program to aid businesses coerced into making regular protection payments to the mafia. After reelection in 2005 and a stint as a member of the European Parliament, he ran for governor last year on what he calls a single platform: “Against the mafia.”
His fight, he said, has taken its toll. In 2010, he said he had to seek therapy after his mother died. She had stopped eating after hearing talk of a mob plot against his life on the news. “She died 40 days later,” he said.
His opponents say the image Crocetta presents of himself may be too good to be true. But if his first few months as governor are any indication, anti-mafia prosecutors say he is at least on the right track.
“He is giving us a constant flow of information, asking his ministers to cooperate with us, and personally calling and coming to see me himself,” said Leonardo Agueci, the deputy chief prosecutor in Palermo. “I can’t say yet where this is all going, but I can say this is like nothing we’ve seen before from a [Sicilian] governor.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.