MADRID — Her conservative rivals demonized her as a heavy spender, a former Communist certain to bust the budget in no time. Yet four years later, Mayor Manuela Carmena of Madrid is the favorite as she faces voters for a second time on Sunday, having cut the city’s multibillion-euro debt by nearly half.
If anything, it is Ms. Carmena’s leftist backers who have criticized her for bowing to Madrid’s powerful business lobby.
Ms. Carmena, 75, shocked the Spanish political establishment in 2015 by winning the mayoralty with a far-left campaign promising, among other things, to right the city’s finances and root out corruption after more than two decades of rule by the conservative Popular Party.
She no doubt benefited from an upturn in Spain’s economy, after a long recession that ended in 2013. And Madrid was subject to spending limits imposed by the national government, to prevent the kind of Pharaonic building projects undertaken during Spain’s construction boom.
Still, Ms. Carmena is credited with bringing a refreshingly frugal management style to a city administration that had grown accustomed to feasting at the public trough. Her government cut the city’s debt load to €2.7 billion (about $3 billion) from €4.8 billion.
Since becoming mayor, Ms. Carmena has shunned pomp, even as she occupies one of the city’s most imposing buildings, which was purchased and turned into Madrid’s city hall under her predecessor, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, at a cost of €500 million.
Rather than using the former mayor’s spacious office, Ms. Carmena opted for a smaller adjoining space. Visitors who come to lunch are often treated to her cooking. On the days when she has no guests, Ms. Carmena brings her lunch in a Tupperware container.
“I can’t imagine many cities where the mayor goes to the market to buy food with her own money, takes the bus with her grocery bag and then cooks in a kitchen above her office,” said Javier del Pino, a radio talk show host who used to invite Ms. Carmena on his show. “She has a clean and caring image that makes it hard to imagine anything corrupt happening under her watch — unlike what was going on in Madrid before her.”
Several investigations into possible fraud are underway, most of them related to the awarding of public contracts by conservative politicians who governed the region of Madrid.
Still, the no-frills Ms. Carmena has ruffled some feathers. Her avowed secularism has upset many Catholics, though she visited Pope Francis in February to discuss migration. Following the recent Easter celebrations, the conservative candidate for mayor, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, criticized Ms. Carmena for not attending Madrid’s religious processions.
Her administration has also been taken to court for renaming several Madrid streets that had honored people linked to the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. Ms. Carmena said she believed Spain needed to confront its past, particularly at a time when Vox, a far-right party, had made headway, winning its first seats in Parliament in last month’s national elections while amassing 10 percent of the vote.
“We made a transition to democracy during which we tried to avoid any kind of confrontation,” she said in an interview. “But it seemed we didn’t close the cycle by paying homage to those who deserved it and by censuring those who were responsible for the civil war and the dictatorship.”
Franco’s legacy strikes a personal chord for Ms. Carmena, dating back to her youth as a left-wing activist. She was born into a working-class family in Madrid, though her father eventually worked his way up from a textiles shop to running his own shirtmaking business. Her mother was a cashier. She joined the then-clandestine Communist Party in 1965, during Franco’s dictatorship, when she also completed her law degree. She was twice detained by Franco’s police for taking part in illegal meetings.
Two years after Franco’s death, in 1975, she narrowly survived a dark episode in Spain’s transition to democracy, leaving her law office just before armed far-right militants stormed in, killing five people.
Six months ago, Ms. Carmena launched her re-election campaign with a new political slogan, “More Madrid,” set up alongside Íñigo Errejón, a former leader of Podemos, Spain’s far-left party. Mr. Errejón was one of the architects of Podemos’s election breakthrough in 2015, but he eventually broke ranks and resigned his seat in Parliament after an unsuccessful bid to lead the party.
Having promised to serve only one term, she caught flak for her re-election bid, with some saying she was acting like a monarch. But she said she wanted to finish some building projects and also felt pressure from “much younger” colleagues to continue in the job.
“Four years is not a lot of time to complete public works and overhaul a city management structure that the Popular Party took 25 years to put in place,” she said.
Ms. Carmena also wants to pursue her campaign against climate change, which led her last year to ban polluting vehicles from entering central Madrid. During a recent meeting with foreign correspondents, she heard from a German journalist who complained at length about the complications that new traffic rules had created in her neighborhood.
“Please use the bus,” Ms. Carmena responded, with a big smile.
Still, Ms. Carmena has defied predictions that she would destroy the economy by placing onerous restrictions on private businesses and investment.
“There was this fear that we would paralyze the city and corporate activity, but I don’t have a negative view on private investment, as long as it is tightly controlled,” she said.
For instance, her administration briefly suspended a construction license for a luxury downtown complex, known as Canalejas, which will include private apartments, a five-star hotel and a shopping mall. But the Canalejas complex is now set to open before year’s end, after the promoters slightly altered their construction plans, agreeing, for example, to reduce the height of the buildings.
This year, when Ms. Carmena’s administration finally approved a huge and long-frozen real estate project around Madrid’s Chamartín train station, she received a deluge of criticism from politicians on the far left, including calls for her to resign.
One of them, Montserrat Galcerán, wrote a letter to Ms. Carmena on Twitter to say that “those who bow to the speculative interests of the banks and the big property companies cannot govern Madrid.”
Ms. Carmena has also struggled at times to implement her projects and keep her administration under control, forced even to take charge of Madrid’s cultural agenda after firing her scandal-prone culture official.
“A good city management doesn’t just depend on having a good leader but also getting surrounded by a great and coherent team, and that’s where Carmena has probably fallen short,” said Juan Barranco, a former Socialist mayor of Madrid.
Whatever Sunday’s election outcome — Ms. Carmena faces several candidates — she is already thinking about her life after leaving city hall. She says she hopes to launch an association that helps Spanish grandparents become mentors for children who are refugees. It would be a suitable challenge for a mayor who is frequently called “the grandmother,” a nickname that she carries with pride.
“It’s an objective fact: I am a grandmother. But I also know that many people use the term pejoratively because our society does not expect older people to be protagonists, when in fact age can bring not only maturity but also a spirit of tolerance and understanding,” she said. “In Spain, there was always some possibility for older men to hold positions of responsibility, but not for women — so this is something new, important and positive.”
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