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Dare to be dull. Vibrant Berlin seems ready to reelect its plodding mayor

Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, shown visiting the Berlin Wall Remembrance Site in August, is known for his low-key personality.
Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, shown visiting the Berlin Wall Remembrance Site in August, is known for his low-key personality.
(Joerg Carstensen / European Pressphoto Agency)

He’s a 51-year-old high school dropout with the charisma of a cheap can opener — looking and sounding like a shy bookkeeper. Yet Michael Mueller is mayor of Berlin, Germany’s biggest and most dynamic metropolis.

To non-Germans, it might look like an odd match, but so far it’s worked. Dare to be dull.

For the record:

1:16 PM, Aug. 22, 2019An earlier version of this article gave Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller’s age as 50. He is 51.

Pollsters and political scientists, who note that Germans prefer bland over blazing leaders, are predicting Mueller and his center-left Social Democrats will prevail in a close race against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats in Berlin. Candidates from four other parties with chances of winning the mayor’s office are competing in Sunday’s elections.

Germans lean towards somewhat dull leaders.

Thorsten Hasche, political scientist

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A trained printer who worked for 14 years in his father’s small shop producing wedding invitations, business cards, beer coasters and pamphlets before jumping into politics, Mueller lives in a rental apartment in the same unfashionable Tempelhof section of Berlin he grew up in — with his wife, who works in a bank, and their two teenage children.

Aside from those details and his passion for the Berlin working-class dish of spicy currywurst sausages, little is known about Mueller’s private life. The mild-mannered man who rarely smiles insists on keeping that out of the public eye, in sharp contrast to his flamboyant predecessor, Klaus Wowereit.

Mueller, embracing his image as a square, has yet to win an election on his own after being handed the mayor’s job on a silver platter two years ago by Wowereit, who suddenly got bored with the nitty-gritty of Berlin’s increasingly complicated politics and quit after 13 years of running Berlin with its piles of debt and mountains of problems.

Many troubles result from the never-ending struggles of trying to merge East and West Berlin after the wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited in 1990. When Berlin came back together, it had two of everything — two city halls, two police departments and even two zoos. Its once-mighty industrial base had all but disappeared after the war, leaving it as one of Europe’s poorest and most indebted capital cities at the turn of the millennium.

Enter Wowereit. By labeling Berlin “poor but sexy” and acquiring the richly deserved moniker as “Partymeister” instead of “Buergermeister” (mayor), he helped turn the city-state of 3.5 million into one of the world’s most exciting destinations — a popular spot filled with Internet start-ups, trendy clubs and low rents that attracted countless thousands of artists and others in creative industries from around the world.

The population of “Cool Berlin” is now growing by 40,000 a year and the jobless rate, once in double digits, has steadily fallen.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Post-unification Berlin has become one of the world's most exciting destinations, with a population that is growing by 40,000 a year.
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Post-unification Berlin has become one of the world’s most exciting destinations, with a population that is growing by 40,000 a year.
(Paul Zinken / European Pressphoto Agency )

Wowereit, Germany’s first openly gay political leader, was even once considered a potential candidate for chancellor. But at some point the glamour grew old. Berliners, as if feeling a hangover, yearned for someone new who could fix their roads and bridges, and get their new international airport finally finished after four years of embarrassing delays, for which Wowereit was blamed.

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Mueller was long a fiercely loyal lieutenant to Wowereit among the Berlin Social Democrats. Wowereit made Mueller his handpicked successor by promoting him to deputy mayor in 2011 and then turned over the reins in the middle of his term to give Mueller a chance to raise his profile and a running start at election — a common practice in Germany when elected leaders are eager to keep their party in power.

The no-nonsense Mueller seemed like the perfect antidote to the swashbuckling Wowereit.

“Maybe things will become a bit duller now!” said Mueller in a rare outburst of enthusiasm in his acceptance speech upon taking over.

Wowereit echoed Mueller’s comments. “I’m looking forward to being bored,” he said.

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In a recent interview with the Berlin magazine Zitty, an introspective Mueller revealed that he never loses his temper. He also acknowledged having regrets that he didn’t follow his parents’ advice to stay in school as a teenager: “A lot of things in life would have been a lot easier with the high school diploma. I had to fight harder because of that and failed to recognize at the time that I should have done more when I was in school.”

But he added: “I like to keep my private life private.”

Once in the mayor’s office, Mueller quickly lifted the Social Democrats back over the 30% threshold in opinion polls after they had fallen precariously to the low 20s. The party has since slipped back down in polls and is expected to win about 24% on Sunday, yet still come in first just ahead of the Christian Democrats, the former communist Left Party, the Greens and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

Mueller wants to ditch the Christian Democrats as his junior coalition partner after five years of a frosty partnership and form a three-way, left-leaning coalition with the Greens and Left Party — which could serve as a template for the federal elections next September that could challenge Merkel.

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Mueller faced widespread criticism for the city government’s inept handling the initial flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere last year, about 80,000 of whom arrived within a few short weeks in Berlin and were at first poorly sheltered and cared for. He blamed the Christian Democrats for those chaotic scenes and implemented sweeping organizational changes that fixed many of those problems.

Mueller’s proudest accomplishment as mayor? “We added 4,500 jobs in the city bureaucracy since I took office,” he said in all sincerity.

“It’s hard for me to say anything good or bad about Mueller because he’s just so incredibly dull and no one knows what he stands for,” said Michael Lemke, a Berlin real estate agent. “It was all a bit too much with Wowereit. He was a party-gangster. Berlin needed a correction after that.”

A campaign poster for Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, who is running for reelection Sunday.
A campaign poster for Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, who is running for reelection Sunday.
(Odd Anderson / AFP/Getty Images )

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Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, put Mueller’s odd appeal this way: “He comes across like an undertaker. He’s such an average, ordinary guy. But it’s exactly what Berliners were craving. They were tired of the parties and limelight.”

After their turbulent and belligerent 20th century history, Germans understandably tend to gravitate toward run-of-the-mill politicians and prefer to elect a safe pair of hands rather than rabble-rousers. They’ve had enough of dazzling orators.

“Germans lean towards somewhat dull leaders,” said Thorsten Hasche, a political scientist at Goettingen University, adding that that has been the secret of Merkel’s success.

“They want those with a sober outlook, a bureaucratic approach,” he said. “Someone like Donald Trump wouldn’t have a chance here.”

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Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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