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Unhappy Couple Run Against Each Other For Congress in Brazil
MATT MOFFETT/Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2006

Ms. Caldeira Says Mr. Costa Is a Corrupt Politician; 'Vote for Me, His Ex-Wife'

SÃO PAULO, Brazil -- They came from different worlds. Maria Christina Mendes Caldeira was the daughter of an old-money real-estate magnate. She had studied in Europe and loved polo. Valdemar Costa Neto was the son of a provincial mayor who grew up in smoke-filled political halls on his way to becoming a powerful Brazilian congressman.

They married in 2003, on New Year's Eve in Las Vegas. But the union soon flamed out. In July of 2004, Mr. Costa had the water and electricity cut off in the mansion they had shared in Brasilia to force Ms. Caldeira to move out, which she eventually did.

But his wife found a way to strike back, personally and politically. During nationally televised congressional hearings last year about an alleged political slush fund, she stepped forward to testify that she had seen Mr. Costa stowing big stacks of cash in a secret safe. Facing possible impeachment and a ban on holding office, Mr. Costa resigned his seat.

The couple, still in court over the terms of their separation, are now fighting in a different arena as Sunday's election approaches. Mr. Costa, president of the influential Liberal Party, is campaigning for a new four-year congressional term. His estranged wife has become his chief opponent as candidate of the Green Party. It's an uphill struggle for Ms. Caldeira, who lacks Mr. Costa's fund-raising ability and the political chits he picked up in his 14-year congressional career.

Last Saturday, she led a group of protesters armed with brooms and buckets in a symbolic "cleaning" of Liberal Party headquarters in Mr. Costa's hometown of Mogi das Cruzes. When a woman loyal to the Liberal Party hit Ms. Caldeira with a shoe, the candidate doused the woman with a bucket of water. After police cruisers came and Ms. Caldeira didn't immediately hand over her ID to an officer, she was taken away and held at precinct headquarters for several hours. "Valdemar sent you!" she shouted at one policeman.

More than just a story of romance gone sour, the contest between the estranged couple goes to the heart of the big question looming over Brazil's election: How much do voters really care about political corruption?

Brazil has rarely seen political scandals that compare with those of the past few years, yet the electorate hardly seems to care. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is set to win re-election easily, even though several close allies were forced out of office by scandal. Federal authorities charge the officials operated an illicit fund to buy support for the government in Congress.

Political consultant Gaudêncio Torquato says he expects about 70% of Congress to be returned to office, including Mr. Costa and several others who allegedly received or distributed payments. He says the government, flush with cash generated by Brazil's mining and agricultural exports, has mollified voters on the subject of corruption with heavy spending on welfare programs and public works.

In the race between Mr. Costa and Ms. Caldeira, Mogi das Cruzes retiree João Batista Savio opts for Mr. Costa, who is known as Boy. (Some people use it as an allusion to "playboy," others to distinguish him from his father, who was well known as a mayor here.) "I have to vote for what's best for my city, and Boy has built things here," says Mr. Savio, pointing to a $25 million water-treatment project and a viaduct. Mr. Savio says Ms. Caldeira should keep her nose out of politics. "Women are emotional, and maybe she attacks Boy because she's jealous," the voter said. "I don't think he did anything seriously wrong."

As part of an indictment brought against 40 politicians in April, Mr. Costa was charged with racketeering, corruption and money laundering in allegedly receiving $4.9 million from the slush fund.

Mr. Costa, 57, hasn't been talking to reporters in his campaign. In a videotaped ad, he says the questionable funds were reimbursements for his party's campaign expenses from its coalition partner, the governing Workers Party. Mr. Costa insists no public money was involved, an assertion that congressional investigators dispute. Mr. Costa said: "I erred and there were only two paths left to me: abandon public life, or stay, recognize the error and start all over."

According to electoral records, Mr. Costa is running one of Brazil's best-financed congressional campaigns, with $350,000 in contributions.

His disaffected wife, on the other hand, is running a shoestring campaign. One Saturday earlier this month, Ms. Caldeira, 40, was passing out fliers from her campaign vehicle, a bright green 1984 Volkswagen motor home emblazoned with her slogan "Tenho Atitude" ("I've Got Attitude"). But the vehicle was having mechanical problems and its balky speaker system wouldn't even let her play her campaign song. Undaunted, the candidate, stylish in boots and a riding jacket, started buttonholing voters on the street. "Vote for me. I denounced Boy," she said. "I'm his ex-wife."

Hairdresser Elena Maria da Silva excitedly embraced Ms. Caldeira. "I saw her on TV," Ms. da Silva said. "She's very brave." But some other passersby went out of their way to avoid Ms. Caldeira or discreetly crumpled her fliers after walking a few steps.

Over the course of his political career, Mr. Costa developed a raffish reputation. During Rio de Janeiro's 1994 Carnaval, for instance, he introduced a young model named Lilian Ramos to then President Itamar Franco. That twosome became internationally famous when photographers captured the scantily clad model standing alongside the president.

His marriage to Ms. Caldeira had long since fallen apart by the time last June when a congressman accused Mr. Costa of slush-fund involvement. Ms. Caldeira supported the accusations to the congressional committee, where she characterized Mr. Costa as a heavy gambler whose personality would change from "Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde." She said he kept stacks of cash in a "big safe...not a little piggy bank."

Mr. Costa and a Liberal Party associate have filed defamation suits against Ms. Caldeira. "The judicial system is scrutinizing her words," a spokesman for Mr. Costa says.

The Green Party invited Ms. Caldeira to run for Congress, hoping to capitalize on her celebrity and to shake voters out of their lethargy over government corruption.

Benedito Faustino Taubaté Guimaraes, a Mogi das Cruzes councilman, scoffs at the notion that Ms. Caldeira can topple Mr. Costa, who is famous for helping constituents. "People want solutions to their problems, not a socialite who wants to talk over coffee," he said. Mr. Guimaraes shows a testimonial letter written by an adolescent, Fabinho Dorneles, who says that after an accident left him in a wheelchair, Mr. Costa pulled strings to get him treated at a top hospital.

But Brazilian politics are hard to predict. In the country's system of proportional representation, each party gets a quota of congressional seats that varies with its share of the popular vote. The top vote getters within each party fill the quota. So it's possible that both Ms. Caldeira and Mr. Costa could be elected, meaning they'd be back together again, in Congress.

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