SLUPSK — One of the first things journalists wanted to know after the recent mayoral election in Slupsk, a small city in northern Poland, is what the winner planned to do with the Pope John Paul II portrait hanging in his mayor's office. Will he remove it? Does he plan to rid the office of religious symbols?
Obviously irritated, Mayor-Elect Robert Bierdron fired back with some queries of his own. "What are you even asking me about?" Bierdron responded. "Why don't you ask me about my plans for Slupsk?"
Already known throughout the country as the first openly gay member of the Polish parliament, Bierdron is about to become Poland's first and only openly gay mayor. The mayoral race in Slupsk was by far the most hotly debated local election in all of Poland because of that.
Bierdron took the city's first-round election in mid-November. His victory caused a sensation, but was expected to be short-lived. Few thought he could repeat the feat in the second round, held at the end of the month. But when Dec. 1 rolled around, election authorities made it official: Bierdron won. The political left was ecstatic. The right, on the hand, was dismayed, saying the result marked the end of Christian civilization in Poland. â€¨
Bierdron's meeting with outgoing Mayor Maciej Kobylinski was short and decorous. He was then welcomed with a bouquet of flowers by the secretaries, who, by the way, may be the greatest beneficiaries of the power switch at city hall.
Ushering in conciliation
Kobylinski has governed Slupsk for the past 12 years and has a reputation for being sharp-tongued and prone to conflict. His bouts of verbal abuse against staff and local politicians have received prominent coverage in the media. After the death of Pope John Paul II, whose portrait hangs in Kobylinski's office, the mayor pledged publicly never again to offend anybody. But in the years that followed, city council sessions continued to be as eventful as always.
The contrast between Kobylinski and his successor couldn't be more stark. The outgoing mayor is a large and imposing figure while Bierdron has an almost boyish look. He never stops smiling and, unlike Kobylinski, is known among journalists for his conciliatory attitude and impeccable manners.
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Bierdron with LGBT militant Anna Grodzka — Photo: Anna Litvin-Semenova
Personal charm may be one of the secrets to the new mayor's success. Bierdron spent the entire two months of the campaign on the city streets talking to residents and distributing leaflets and warm tea. "I love talking to people," he says. "I am a very honest man. I never pretend to be somebody I'm not."
Bierdron says he paid a heavy political price for coming out as gay, but in the long run the same honesty that initially caused him troubles helped him attract voters, he says. He also says that homosexuality wasn't, in fact, an issue he discussed much during the campaign. "People asked about sidewalks, about the water park or the maternity ward in the local hospital," Bierdron says. "Nobody wanted to talk about my sexual orientation, nobody except the journalists."
One 60-year-old woman says, "I voted for a mayor, not a lover." Another Slupsk resident, in her 50s, explains that by voting for Bierdron she opted for somebody new, someone who doesn't belong to the old political establishment. "He brought hope for a change," she says.
Bierdron says he wants to lead by example. "I will move now to the city center and use my bike to go to work," he says. Ecology and a larger civic participation in local politics are the two main pillars of his program. He dreams about turning Slupsk into a renewable energy hub on a national scale, which he has already discussed with the Ministry of Environment.
For all his enthusiasm, Bierdron will have his work cut out for him, especially given how little support he has within Slupsk's city council. "The only thing I'm worried about is that politics will override the citizens' best interests," he says. He hopes his plans for an open dialogue will win over at least some of his critics. "With the kind of energy we have now in Slupsk, we can move mountains."