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Rio mayor's star rose, and now is falling, with Olympics
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Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Eduardo Paes, center, talks with the media inside the Expressway Tunnel. - photo by Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Just a year ago, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes was hailed by Olympic Committee executives as the driving force behind the Summer Games that are set to kick off in August in samba city.

Overseeing billions of construction dollars for glittering athletic venues, Paes was so popular that he was often mentioned as a potential presidential contender.

But Paes' once-bright star has dimmed as he's been blamed for mounting problems and associated with a probe into corruption at the state oil company Petrobras.

"There has been so much bad news for him," said Leonardo Paz Neves, a political science professor at Ibmec, a university in Rio de Janeiro. "His public image has been severely hit."

The April collapse of a section of a new bike lane, an Olympic beautification project, plunged two men to their deaths and raised questions about how well the venues have been built. Officials have failed to meet targets for cleaning up Rio's notoriously polluted waterways, including some where Olympic events will be held. And anger is growing over the city's inability to provide basic services amid a punishing recession and massive public spending on the games.

Paes acknowledges the last year has been tough.

"I wish I could be doing nothing but legacy construction works for the city," he recently said during a news conference.

Paes, a lawyer who speaks fluent English, entered politics in the 1990s as an appointed borough administrator of Barra da Tijuca, an area of Rio that includes the Olympic Park. He later became a city councilor and then a representative in the lower chamber of Congress before winning a close race to become Rio's mayor in 2008.

Paes was thrust into the international spotlight the following year when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2016 Games to Rio over Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

The mayor basked in the attention as venues went up in recent years, framing the Olympic preparations as a chance to modernize one of the world's most iconic cities. Two years ago Rio was also in the spotlight when it hosted World Cup matches including the final, as the world's other premier sporting tournament also came to Brazil.

But now city prosecutors and council members say they are scrutinizing Olympic contracts for possible corruption as the investigation continues into the multibillion-dollar kickback scheme at Petrobras.

There are also two other investigations directly involving the mayor. Earlier this year Paes' name appeared on a leaked list of payments made by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, one of the central companies involved in the scandal. Paes argues that they were legal campaign donations, not bribes.

In the other probe, Brazil's chief investigator is examining whether Paes erased bank records for an ally during his time as a representative. The mayor denies any wrongdoing.

Even headaches that clearly are not of Paes' making are finding their way to City Hall. Amid the worst recession to hit Brazil since the 1930s, Rio de Janeiro state is in such dire financial straits that the city of the same name had to take over administration of two of the state's hospitals.

While Olympic projects have created some jobs, Rio is still struggling with 10 percent unemployment. Many residents like Feliciano Silveira, a 58-year-old doorman, find it hard to contain their anger over how the city is being run these days.

"It used to take me about an hour to go to work. Now it takes almost two hours," said Silveira, who voted for Paes twice and regrets it today. "Paes changed the bus system without much care, he blocked the city center with Olympic projects that never seem to be ready and my kids go to a municipal school that often has no classes."

Clearing space for the Olympic venues has also cost the mayor politically. To build what will become upper-class housing at the Olympic Park, the city bulldozed the shantytown of Vila Autodromo. Paes initially said residents could stay if they wanted, but reversed course and ordered evictions when many decided to do so. Only about 30 of 700 families who once lived in the area remain, and they face being forced out by police in the coming weeks.

"Paes has become very linked to the wealthy for demolishing (those) homes," said Felipe Pena, a communications professor at Rio's Fluminense Federal University.

The Olympics will give Paes one last chance to shine before his term ends Dec. 31, and ahead of a possible run for state governor in 2018.

The mayor has said he believes residents will ultimately look proudly on the civic facelift over which he presided. Along with the Olympic Park, there is a new tram system, a revamped port area and a new expressway running through the sprawling city, among other improvements.

"The comparison that matters is between Rio and Rio," Paes said recently as he inaugurated a new sanitation facility. "Rio before the Olympics and Rio now."