Updating the Two Claudias: Mayors Claudia López and Claudia Scheinbaum
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
If you are of the opinion that Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and 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, the 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, Spanish-speaking 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 had ever been mayor or its 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.
The first Claudia is Colombian--an environmentalist, a blunt, relentless anti-corruption advocate, and an outspoken married lesbian. The second Claudia is Mexican -- a physicist, a member of the team that shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore, a radical political progressive, and Jewish. Both Claudias hold PhDs from American universities. The first, Claudia López, was elected Mayor of Bogotá in 2019, the country’s capital, its largest city, and Latin America’s second largest urban area.
In 2018, the second, Claudia Scheinbaum, was elected mayor of her country’s capital, Mexico City, 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 them 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 Bogotá’s 2019 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, with voter participation over 70%, Scheinbaum, received 47.7% of the vote, of the over s70% of the electorate casting ballots.
They are both self-made women. Claudia López is one of six children. Her father is a 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, when 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. However, hounded 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 gender bending tenacity and audacity, Claudia challenged conventional political wisdom, classism and tradition, and ran for national political office. For her efforts inspiring first-time voters to her candidacy, she was rewarded with election to the mayoralty of Bogotá.
Within a year of her election, Claudia López had to confront massive and violent public protests as a result of the political pressures from the unpopular economic and social policies of President Iván Duque’s response to the COVID pandemia. At the outset of massive nationwide street demonstrations, and the national government’s brutal police response, Lopez was diagnosed with COVID. Quarantined, she nevertheless maintained her presence and leadership with forceful and combative zoom pronouncements.
Once back in active public life, López stated that, “These protests are not a response by organized labor declaring a strike in favor of reforms, but a social uprising against the lack of opportunity and jobs…and that this new generation is once again rebelling against the abuses of power and police brutality. This is a call for profound social changes and not a response to changing a few laws.” The public responded positively and continues to respond in favor of Mayor Claudia Lopez and her calls for social justice; a clear through line to the student protests she led more than 30 years ago -- protests which led to the meaningful constitutional reforms of 1991.
Mayor López’ efforts to confront the challenges of protecting the city from the pandemic’s potentially devastating loss of life, as well as loss of jobs, have yielded amazing results. Trustworthy nationwide polls of all the mayors and governors in the country have shown that none received higher approval ratings for their efforts -- 83% -- than Claudia López.
Not only did respondents laud her ability to bring employment levels back to almost 93% of its pre-Covid levels, but respondents felt that, “…she had a long term vision of the solutions to the virus and …that her priority was not only the reactivation of the economy, and not merely a return to normality but the preservation of human life…”
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 oppose the war in Viet Nam, and supported 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 an 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 UNAM’s Student University Council (CEU). This organization became the most important and ultimately successful student and civic movement to oppose the narrowly drawn educational reforms which would have limited access to university studies for the vast majority of working class Mexicans.
Claudia’s militancy was translated into the public realm when she joined other members of the CEU and national 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.
Now, just for three years shy of becoming Mayor, and like her Colombian namesake, this Claudia has not only weathered the twin pandemic cataclysms of disease and economic contraction, but her leadership and effective execution of social and public health policies in this, the largest city in the Americas, have brought about two other outstanding accomplishments. Mexico City’s economic growth has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. By the end of September 2021, 98.7 % of adults had received one dose of vaccine ,and 74 % were fully vaccinated. At the same time, programs under her watch have expanded existing public transportation, and developed two new lines of Cablebus, an innovative public transportation program which provides speedy, safe and inexpensive ease of movement for residents of the Capital’s outlying and poorest neighborhoods.
Mayor Scheinbaum’s transportation programs have addressed climate change, as well, by adding yet another new transportation alternatives -- 200 electric trolley buses, 300 new low-emission buses and 112 miles of new bicycle lanes.
Both Claudias are persuasive proponents for a new generation of voters who have found in both of them, dynamic, articulate, principled, and socially conscious voices for the common good. These new voters have embraced the two Claudias’ advocacy without regard to their gender, sexual orientation, or religion. All of this has been achieved in the narrow-band-width political universe of historically exclusive male social elites.
Finally, with the recent election (November 2021) of Xiomara Castro as the first female President of Honduras, it doesn’t take much imagination to find in the political successes of the two Claudias that the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Americas may be on the cusp of a return to the not-so-long-ago, golden age of female presidents, when the economies and societies of the three most important nations in the Hispanic world -- Argentina, Brazil, and Chile -- were governed by women.