Huldai, Henin battle for Tel Aviv's soul

Drums and applause greeted MK Dov Henin, who is trying to unseat Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, as he stepped out of his car in the heart of south Tel Aviv's run-down Florentin neighborhood on Tuesday evening. Henin is popular here, in his home turf. Florentin is a bastion of young avant-garde artists and other people who migrated to Tel Aviv from around the country. In between dilapidated, empty, dark-grey buildings, spray-painted walls, small, colorful cafes and fruit markets lies Henin's makeshift headquarters, staffed by dozens of dedicated volunteers handing out fliers and stickers, and sending text messages on their phones urging friends to vote. The activists say they would like to see a revolution in Tel Aviv and an end to the domination of the city by "corporate and wealthy forces." Henin, who hails from the communist-oriented Hadash Party, said he was optimistic about his chances of being voted in. "This city needs new answers," he said, surrounded by his followers. "Something important has happened here. Urban society has woken up... We have more than 1,000 volunteers, which is unprecedented. There is a sense of enthusiasm and optimism, it's a very good feeling. We have created a progressive agenda and an urban movement." Passing cars honked in support, as Henin spoke about reversing the neglect of south Tel Aviv and "causing everyone to feel as if they are equal residents. The new luxury towers being built are not Tel Aviv's test, but rather, these streets here are the test." Florentin and other areas in the south have been earmarked for high-rise construction, a trend Henin said he intended to challenge. "It's very hard to cancel projects that have already been approved," he warned. Elad, an activist from Yaffa, said he joined Henin's Tel Aviv for Everyone list because he wanted to see a greener, more bicycle-friendly and more democratic city. "When you walk around north Tel Aviv and compare it to Yaffa, the gaps in investment by Huldai are visible," he said. "Within Yaffa itself, housing developments have been allocated to millionaires, at the expense of locals who should be defended. There needs to be a balance between the demands of rich and poor. I'm not advocating the banning of millionaires, but I am looking for a balance," he said. "These sidewalks are filled with animal feces. We can't see the ocean from here because of construction. We see no green here, we don't have our Central Park. Sewage is leaking out into the sea. And skyscrapers are being built here causing rent to soar. That's why Dov should become mayor," a female activist said. Just a few kilometers and a world away near the soaring Azrieli Towers in central Tel Aviv, an election campaigns control room, complete with large flat-screen TV screens and dozens of people on phones, was in full throttle. Situated underground in a basement complex, Huldai's headquarters could not have looked more different from the scenes being played out in Florentin. "We're not seeing dramatic changes in voting from last time," said Huldai's campaign manager, Nissim Douek. "For a revolution to happen and for Henin to be elected, there need to be at least 30,000 votes for him. But we're not seeing that happen in the field," Douek said. In 2003, Huldai won 64 percent of the 110,000 ballots cast, and Huldai's hi-tech campaign has worked hard to produce similar results this time around. "Let's be honest, the young people, the artists, and the celebrities are not our strong base of support," Douek conceded. "We are an institution, we've been in power for 10 years. But we do have strong support from the gay community, following Tel Aviv's centrality as a gay-friendly city." "Our voters are mostly the middle class who bring their children to school in the mornings. We're not giving up on the youth, but you have to know where you're strong," he said. Speaking three-and-a half-hours before the polls closed, Douek sounded a cautiously optimistic note. "These next two-and-a-half hours are when the biggest chunk of voters cast their ballot. We have spent months calling and identifying 40,000 supporters, and pushing them to go and vote," he said. "I don't see a big wave of Henin voters right now. But I'm still very alert." At this point, an excited looking Huldai entered the headquarters. "I feel excellent," he told reporters, adding that he was too busy to speak to the press at the moment. "Our message is, 'Vote for Huldai today, or you may wake up to a mayor you don't want,'" Douek said.