Known for Feuding With Immigrants, a TV Star Wants to Run a Town Many Call Home

AMADORA, Portugal — She is a former TV commentator whose penchant for provocation has won her fame, or at least notoriety, in Portugal: for instance, by describing calls for racial justice traitorous, and by referring to Black Portuguese by an old-fashioned term that translates to something like “Negro.”

Now the former commentator, Suzana Garcia, is running for mayor of Amadora, a city adjacent to Lisbon with one of the largest Black populations in Portugal.

The mayoral election in Amadora, set this year for Sunday alongside hundreds of other local races, is usually a sleepy affair, watched by few outside this working-class city of 185,000 that is home to many immigrants from former Portuguese colonies like Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

But Ms. Garcia’s high profile and her combative persona mean she has tapped into a question far larger than who should be mayor: Namely, how a former colonial power like Portugal should deal with today’s debates about racial justice.

The country, which had African colonies until the 1970s, is home to sizable communities of African immigrants and second-generation Black Portuguese, many of whom say today that they face systemic racism and attacks by the police.

“Yes, we have racist countries in the European Union, but my country is not a racist country,” Ms. Garcia said in an interview. She said those who disagreed were “opportunist people that have never known what it is to work.”

The Amadora campaign is also gaining attention for another reason: Ms. Garcia does not claim allegiance to the far right, long known in Europe for stoking racial tensions. She is running with the Social Democratic Party, the country’s moderate conservative party known as the P.S.D.

For years, a wave of populism roiling other European nations seemed to have skipped Portugal. Two establishment parties — the conservative P.S.D. and the more liberal Socialist Party — controlled politics, trading power every few election cycles, much as the Republicans and Democrats do in the United States.

But that changed with the arrival of a right-wing party called Chega, whose leader split from the P.S.D. in 2018 amid disputes over how far he could go with his loaded language against Portugal’s Roma population.

In Cova da Moura, a poor neighborhood and one of the parishes of Amadora Council, most residents are from Cape Verde or Mozambique.Credit…Ana Brigida for The New York Times

The P.S.D. has lost votes to Chega ever since, and analysts say that might be partly why the party is so interested in Ms. Garcia. In many ways, her campaign seems less about whether she wins — the P.S.D. has not run Amadora in years — but more about changing the party’s image to cater more to the political extreme.

“It’s a sign they’re trying to engage with the ideology of the far right,” said Marina Costa Lobos, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon. “By selecting this woman as a candidate for Amadora, which is ethnically diverse, they are validating a certain discourse.”

For her part, Ms. Garcia says she is often misunderstood. In an interview, she spoke of growing up in Mozambique (where her father was based as a geologist), and arriving in Portugal at age 12, an experience she said gave her insight into the challenge of being an immigrant from Africa. Though white, she claims some Black ancestry (from one grandmother), noting that many of her relatives are darker than she is.

In her television appearances, though, Ms. Garcia, 45, has a different tone. In 2016, she became a commentator on “SOS 24,” a television show focusing on crime news, and soon became known for her provocative language and heated debate style, which often involved yelling down those who disagreed with her in the studio. Hate crimes were one of her most impassioned topics.

In 2019, Luis Giovani dos Santos Rodrigues, a 21-year-old student from Cape Verde, was heading home from a party when a group of men armed with belts surrounded him and his friends. They beat Mr. dos Santos, who died in a hospital days later.

Ms. Garcia soon stepped into an ensuing debate over whether the attack should be treated as a hate crime.

“When a white was killed by the Blacks, we didn’t talk about it being a racist incident,” she said on her show early last year. “Nor did we say that immigrants came here to do this and do that. We didn’t say anything. So we don’t have to say anything now.”

Throughout that broadcast, she referred to Black Portuguese using a once common term to refer to Africans during Portugal’s colonial era, but which today it is widely considered offensive.

Despite the backlash from activists, Ms. Garcia became even more outspoken. She dug into her focus on violent crimes on her show, despite government statistics indicating that crime had fallen for years. When activists accused the police of violence against Black immigrants, Ms. Garcia sided with law enforcement.

Ms. Garcia campaigning on Wednesday in Amadora.Credit…Ana Brigida for The New York Times

When Mamadou Ba, an activist and a Senegalese immigrant, challenged her ideas, saying one root of Portugal’s problems was its systemic racism, Ms. Garcia called him a “parasite.”

“His existence is dangerous to all Portuguese,” she said.

In 2020, after management changes at the network she was at, Ms. Garcia left saying she wanted to spend more time with her family.

As the elections neared, she said, she was approached by several political groups, mostly small right-wing parties who said they were interested in her views. The Social Democrats also approached, but Ms. Garcia said she was concerned at first that she might not fit into an establishment political party, saying that it was necessary to “speak my mind freely.”

But in the end, Ms. Garcia said, she decided to take up their offer to run as their candidate for Amadora mayor. She said she hoped to add a populist element to the political equation, saying establishment politicians “seem to be talking about a reality that we, the people, don’t know.”

Carla Tavares, Amadora’s current mayor, who is seeking re-election with the Socialist Party, took issue with this idea, observing that Ms. Garcia’s stances instead seemed intended to offend a large portion of the city.

Ms. Tavares also said she was taken aback that the Social Democratic Party had agreed to align with someone who took such pleasure in provocation. She pointed to a huge election billboard that Ms. Garcia had erected in front of City Hall.

“I was never confronted with such inflammatory rhetoric,” Ms. Tavares said.

Flávio Almada, a rapper and community organizer in Cova da Moura, the Black neighborhood that Ms. Garcia often spotlighted on her show, said that even though Ms. Garcia was also born in Africa, she would never know the reality that he did as a Black immigrant from Cape Verde.

In 2015, when Mr. Almada went looking for a friend who had been arrested, the Portuguese police beat him and called him numerous slurs. The attack made headlines, and eight officers were convicted in the episode.

Among Ms. Garcia’s proposals is an expansion of the police force that assaulted him in Amadora.

“It’s only to get votes from whoever is afraid,” Mr. Almada said, adding that he believed Ms. Garcia was using the election to raise her profile among right-wing voters nationally regardless of whether she wins.

Flávio Almada, in Cova da Moura, objected to the idea that Ms. Garcia knew what it was like to be an immigrant from Africa.Credit…Ana Brigida for The New York Times

And there are hints that she may already be looking beyond Amadora. Recently, Ms. Garcia erected campaign billboards in Lisbon in front of the Parliament building. Though the P.S.D. had another candidate running for mayor in the capital, many took it as a signal that she wanted to be seen as a national player.

Ms. Garcia says she simply does what she pleases, even if it bothers the establishment.

“When you have an animal like me, that you cannot put in place, it’s very antagonizing for them,” she said. “But I don’t really care. I just want to work.”

Daniela Ferreira Pinto contributed reporting in Amadora, Portugal.

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