Little Renato's big ideas to save dying Venice
John Follain in Venice, The Times
Silvio Berlusconi's 'mini-minister', Renato Brunetta has promised to restore Venice to its former glory with a huge investment package
As a teenager, Renato Brunetta spent long, hot summers helping his impoverished father sell plastic gondolas and souvenir models of St Mark's Basilica on the streets of Venice.
Now, Brunetta is standing for mayor of the city. He promises to revive its former glories with a £23 billion investment package, attracting 40,000 new residents and building a railway beneath the lagoon. He also wants to ban hawkers.
One of the most popular ministers in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, which faces local elections today and tomorrow, Brunetta is tipped to win control of Venice, ending 18 years of left-wing rule.
A former economics professor, Brunetta, 59, has won praise for his crackdown on inefficient bureaucrats and civil service absenteeism. Combative and tireless, he jokes about his 4ft 9in stature, which has earned him the nickname of "the Mini Minister".
At a campaign rally last week, he praised the work of a blonde fellow politician who towered over him, adding, "but she's too tall for me", even though his girlfriend, Titti Giovannoni, is another tall blonde who brings a touch of glamour to the campaign.
Munching his way through a plate of biscuits afterwards, Brunetta pledged to boost Venice's economy in order to reverse a fall in population from 120,000 in the 1960s to 60,000 today as residents flee high living costs and a lack of jobs. Only tourism flourishes. Homes are being turned into hotels and grocery stores replaced by stores selling carnival masks.
Brunetta sees other sources of growth. "Venice didn't become a great empire by trading in wheat. It traded in silks and spices, goods with a high added value which made it rich. Today's silks and spices are things like high-tech businesses, upmarket tourism and cultural events," he said. His priority will be to raise £23 billion over 10 years in public and private funds to pay for infrastructure projects including a railway linking Marco Polo airport and the mainland town of Mestre to the centre of Venice two miles away.
For Brunetta, the underwater railway - "it's easy, just a tube resting on the lagoon floor" - will make it easier for Venetians to commute to the mainland for work and draw businesses to the city.
Other projects include developing the port at Marghera on the mainland, building an offshore petroleum terminal, a business park and conference centre near the airport, expanding the university and completing the Moses lagoon barrier to stop Venice flooding.
Brunetta is counting in part on his political clout, boasting that 12 ministers have come from Rome to back his campaign. His main rival, Giorgio Orsoni, a little-known, centre-left lawyer, counters that Brunetta would be a "weekend mayor" spending most of his time in the capital.
Brunetta insisted his ministerial rank was a good thing. "Venice is such a special and difficult city that it has to be run by a mayor-minister. If I need to see a minister I don't have to wait around for an audience, I'm in cabinet myself," he said.
Venice would in future offer more cultural events , he promised, with concerts in the summer. He wants the film festival to "stop screening Third World films no one wants to see".
Although Brunetta is expected to win, Berlusconi's People of Freedom party is predicted to lose several of the 13 regions being contested.
Berlusconi, 73, has declared the elections a "test" for his government, which has been rocked by corruption scandals and rising unemployment.
He has announced sweeping reforms, including a directly elected president. He is understood to want the job himself.