The Two Claudias
If you are of the opinion that Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar or any of the other female candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party’s nomination faced long odds, let me tell you a story, about long political odds, a Latin American political tale. This is not a fable though. This is not political magic realism, a Gabriel García Márquez fantasy about a mythical female leader like Mamá Grande (Big Mama) of Macondo. I am not referring to an elected female official from a backwater capital city of an emerging market country. No, this is a political tale of two female candidates who aspired to and were elected to their country’s second most important political office—the mayoralties of their nation’s respective capitals. Both women named Claudia, faced electability odds that would have been insurmountable for any of the recent female candidates for the U.S. presidency. In fact, not only were their odds of winning long, but just the mere fact of their being considered candidates for that office would have seemed outlandish.
In the almost 500 years since the cities that both of these Claudias now govern were founded, no woman has ever had ever been mayor or it’s colonial era equivalent. So the fact that no lesbian had ever considered running for, or been elected to such a political office was not surprising; nor was the fact that no woman of the Jewish faith had ever been nominated for or held that political office. Yet, both Claudias are currently mayors of two of the Spanish-speaking world’s largest metropolitan areas. Their stories have as much to tell us about the shifting landscape of the male dominated world of Latin American executive power and by inference in the United States, as they do about the stereotypes and biases against the electability of a female candidate at those commanding heights of civic leadership. What convinced the electorates that these two women could energize, mobilize, and win over their election against formidable male candidates who have always won these elections? Let’s take a closer look at the candidates to understand their appeal and their strengths as candidates.
One Claudia is Colombian—an environmentalist, a blunt, relentless anti-corruption advocate and an outspoken married lesbian. The other Claudia is Mexican, a physicist, an ecologist member of the team that shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore, a radical progressive, and Jewish. Both Claudias hold PhDs from American universities. The first, Claudia López, was recently elected Mayor of Bogotá (2019), the country’s capital, largest city and Latin America’s second largest urban area. The second, Claudia Scheinbaum, was elected mayor of her country’s capital, Mexico City (2018), the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, the largest metropolitan area in North America, and along with Tokyo one of the two largest metro areas on the planet. These two women are elected officials of immense national power and prestige.
The personal and political biographies of the Claudias place them both outside the traditional Latin American pathways to political power and prominence. That is, neither Claudia is from a politically, economically, or socially elite family. Nor do either of the Claudias have fathers or grandfathers who ever held a national or ministerial office or exercised a leadership role in an established political party or labor union.
The two Claudias not only defied conventional wisdom about electability but did so by overwhelming margins. In the Bogotá mayoral elections, Claudia López received the highest vote count of any mayoral candidate since direct elections for that position were enacted by the Colombian Congress in 1988. In Mexico City’s 2018 mayoral elections, in a field of six candidates, Scheinbaum, with voter participation over seventy percent, received 47.7 of the vote, of the over seventy percent of the electorate casting ballots.
They are both self-made women. Claudia López is one of six children. Her father is a small-time merchant and her mother a primary school teacher. She was raised in Engativá, a working- class neighborhood in Bogotá. She was the first member of her family to attend a university where her political activism began. In her undergraduate years, she joined the 1989 Séptima Papeleta (Seventh Ballot) student movement. This was a massive nation-wide, months long, campaign against governmental corruption, incompetence, and inertia following the 1989-1990 murders of three of Colombia’s leading presidential candidates–Luis Carlos Galán, Carlos Pizarro, and Bernardo Jaramillo. Claudia Lopez’ activism during this critical moment of national crisis, her manifest physical courage, and her incandescent oratorical gifts elevated her to a position of national prominence. Hounded, however, by Colombia’s notorious death squads, Claudia left Colombia for New York City where she earned an M.A. at Columbia in Public Administration and then worked for the United Nations. Intellectually restless, still deeply committed to exposing corruption and universally admired for her unvarnished and genderbending tenacity and audacity, Claudia challenged conventional political wisdom, classism and tradition running for national political office. For her efforts, she was not only rewarded with election to the mayoralty of Bogotá but for the ability to inspire first time voters to support that candidacy.
In the catholic patriarchal political world of Mexican politics, Claudia Sheinbaum, 55, is a rarity. She is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Bulgaria. Her parents, born and raised in Mexico City, are university trained scientists. Both were not only committed academics but also passionate political activists who joined the Mexican student protest movement of 1968 as part of the world wide effort to confront the war in Viet Nam and support demands for social justice and environmental awareness. Like her parents, Claudia continued their world view of combining the life of the mind with the life of social activism. She not only earned a doctoral degree in Physics and Engineering at UCLA’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory but became a outspoken student reformer and activist. Almost 20 years after her parents actively participated in the protests at Mexico’s National Autonomous University(UNAM), in 1986, Claudia was elected to the Student University Council(CEU). This organization became the most important and ultimately successful student and civic movement to oppose narrowly drawn educational reforms which would have limited access to university studies for the vast majority of working class Mexicans. Claudia’s student activism was translated into the public realm when she joined other members of the CEU and political figures to found the Democratic Revolutionary Party(PRD in Spanish). As Claudia’s political philosophy outgrew the PRD, she joined with Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current President of Mexico, and other like-minded progressives to form the MORENA Party(Movement for National Regeneration Party). In 2018, with the energetic backing of Lopez Obrador, Claudia Scheinbaum was elected the first woman Mayor of Mexico City.
Both Claudias are persuasive proponents for a new generation of voters who have found in them dynamic, articulate, principled, and socially conscious voices of the common good; and of voters who are willing to reward the Claudias advocacy without regard to gender, sexual orientation, or religion. All of this having been achieved in the narrow band-width world of historically exclusive male, socially elite political universe.
Finally, it doesn’t take much imagination then to find in the familial and political history of one of these two Claudias, Claudia Scheinbaum, positive and categorical lessons about Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s Vice President. In addition to similar individual strengths and political aptitudes, like Scheinbaum, Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents, progressive activists, and academics, who from an early age, introduced their daughters to the world of social justice. Instead of Harris being a strategic liability for the Biden campaign, she like Scheinbaum, will encourage a new generation of voters who see in her the right fit for this presidential ticket and the right fit for this historical moment.