Mexicans Are on the Verge of Electing Their First Female President


Claudia Sheinbaum’s list of accolades is long: She has a Ph.D. and a shared Nobel Peace Prize and was the first woman elected to lead Mexico City, her nation’s capital and one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Now she has another chance to make history. Ms. Sheinbaum, 61, is the clear front-runner in the Mexican election on Sunday, putting her in position to become the country’s first female president.

But she has an image problem, and she knows it.

Many Mexicans are wondering: Can she be her own leader? Or is she a pawn of the current president?

“There’s this idea, because a lot of columnists say it, that I don’t have a personality,” Ms. Sheinbaum complained to reporters earlier this year. “That President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tells me what to do, that when I get to the presidency, he’s going to be calling me on the phone every day.”

With the Mexican election just days away, Ms. Sheinbaum is facing a fundamental dilemma.

She insists she will govern independently from her mentor, Mr. López Obrador, and has some different priorities. But veering too far from his agenda could be very risky.

She and Mr. López Obrador are “different people,” she said in an interview. He’s an oilman who invested in environmentally questionable projects; she’s a climate scientist. Yet Ms. Sheinbaum has risen to the top in part by aligning herself completely with him, and by backing moves like his big bet on the national oil company and constitutional changes that critics call antidemocratic.

Will she dare to stray from those policies if she wins office, inviting the reproach of Mr. López Obrador and the movement that got her there? Or will she dedicate herself to cementing his legacy, even if it means stifling her own vision?

“Claudia can’t say what she’s going to do, because right now she has to show absolute loyalty to Andrés Manuel,” said Ana Laura Magaloni, a legal expert who advised Ms. Sheinbaum during her first year as mayor.

“What’s going to happen when Claudia is free from that yoke, when Andrés Manuel is no longer there?” Ms. Magaloni said. “No one knows.”

The other top contender is a woman named Xóchitl Gálvez, a tech entrepreneur who is representing several opposition parties. But with Ms. Sheinbaum leading the polls by 20 percentage points, much of the national debate has centered on who she would really be as president.

Ms. Sheinbaum says it is sexist to suggest that the possible first female leader of Mexico is really only the puppet of a man.

“There’s a trace of misogyny, of machismo there,” she told one interviewer. “They say, ‘The only reason she’s ahead in the polls is because she’s the same as the president, or she’s the president’s favorite.’”

Mr. López Obrador will be remembered for doubling the minimum wage and lifting millions out of poverty, but also for empowering the military, prioritizing fossil fuels and pushing measures that critics say could weaken Mexico’s democratic institutions.

His successor stands to inherit a long list of troubles. The state-owned oil company is buckling under debt, migration through the country has reached historical highs, violence is raging and former President Donald J. Trump is already threatening tariffs if he wins the American election.

Ms. Sheinbaum told The New York Times that she was prepared to work with whichever candidate wins the next U.S. election. Publicly, she has echoed Mr. López Obrador’s emphasis on tackling Mexico’s cartel violence and migration by addressing their root causes. In a hint of potential change, she said in a recent debate that she would seek to reform the country’s migration authority, an agency often accused of corruption.

“We need to be more effective in decreasing irregular crossings,” Juan Ramón de la Fuente, a member of her campaign team who is seen as her likeliest pick for foreign minister, said in an interview.

Some in Washington have privately questioned whether Mexico’s cooperation on migration could lag after the country’s elections, but Mr. de la Fuente batted away those concerns. “We will continue with the same, I would say, rigor trying to contain those flows of migrants,” he said.

A former ballet dancer, Ms. Sheinbaum calls herself “obsessive” and “disciplined.” But discipline may not be enough, analysts say.

Mr. López Obrador is a generational political talent who built his party into a juggernaut by relying on the force of his personality. When his coalition became fractious, he used his enormous political capital to corral internal rivals. When problems arose, he persuaded Mexicans he was solving them even if his own government’s statistics disagreed.

Now comes Ms. Sheinbaum, her demeanor more professorial than fiery, trying to take control of a political world defined by Mr. López Obrador’s brand of power.

“She needs him,” said Carlos Heredia, a Mexican political analyst. “She doesn’t have the charisma, she doesn’t have the popularity, she doesn’t have the political stamina of her own, so she needs to borrow that from López Obrador.”

The Times spoke with two dozen people who have worked with or know Ms. Sheinbaum and also visited campaign events, reviewed her writings and her media appearances and interviewed her, once in 2020 and again this year.

What became clear is that Ms. Sheinbaum has long seemed more comfortable quietly getting things done than selling herself or her achievements.

The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe, she rarely discusses being Jewish or almost anything about her personal life, colleagues say. When interviewers ask her about the Nobel Prize she shared with a panel of climate researchers, she notes how many others were involved in the work.

She is known as a tough boss with a quick temper who can inspire in her staff fear and adoration at the same time. Publicly, though, her affect is so controlled it verges on aloof.

Mr. López Obrador, by contrast, is entirely comfortable revealing his inner emotional state to the world. Nearly every weekday for the last five years, he has held a morning news conference in which he spends hours hashing out his anxieties, celebrating his wins and assailing his critics. When he’s not going for the jugular, he comes across as warm and charming.

“Andrés is more charismatic,” Marcelo Ebrard, the former foreign minister who is now on Ms. Sheinbaum’s campaign team, said in an interview. A one-time rival of Ms. Sheinbaum’s within the party, Mr. Ebrard didn’t mean this negatively. Hers is “a different kind of leadership,” he said, which may be “more efficient” than personality-driven.

For some Mexicans, a thrills-free woman may be an ideal antidote to an entertaining man who plunged the country into partisan turmoil.

But her opponents just see an opportunity.

At a recent campaign event for college students, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, the third-place candidate, was asked to define Ms. Sheinbaum.

“Very boring,” he said, smirking. The room broke into applause.

Born to two scientists who were leftist activists in the capital, Ms. Sheinbaum was always “a serious girl,” said Arturo Cano, a journalist who wrote a biography of the candidate. As a child, she made family visits to feed political prisoners, Mr. Cano said.

While at the National Autonomous University, she helped lead a movement protesting a plan to raise student fees and change admissions. She married one of the leaders of the movement and had a child with him.

In the early 1990s, they moved to California, where she studied Mexico’s energy consumption at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The candidate’s political career began when Mr. López Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000 and invited her to a meeting at a diner. “What I want is to reduce pollution,” she recalled Mr. López Obrador telling her. “Do you know how to do that?”

Ms. Sheinbaum, who by then had written more than a dozen reports on energy use and carbon emissions, said yes. She became his environment minister. In meetings, she seemed willing to do almost anything to make her boss happy, according to several people who worked with her.

“The phrase she used over and over again was ‘The mayor said to,’” said Mr. Heredia, who worked with her in city government under Mr. López Obrador.

What that meant, according to Mr. Heredia: “We are not a cabinet for giving ideas,” he said. “We are a group of people here to execute what he decides.”

Mr. Heredia was confused when he learned that Ms. Sheinbaum, the climate expert, was overseeing the capital’s big new investment: building an elevated highway across Mexico City. The project would just encourage people to drive more, critics said.

At the time, Ms. Sheinbaum said that the new road reduced pollution by easing traffic, though experts say it is hard to corroborate that claim. One 2018 study said the effect on emissions was “not significant” because even though congestion was lower, the number of cars increased.

In 2006, Mr. López Obrador ran for president and lost by less than one percentage point. He disputed the results and led his supporters in a monthslong occupation of the capital’s downtown.

There, he held his own inauguration ceremony, where he proclaimed himself “the legitimate president” of Mexico. Ms. Sheinbaum helped adorn him with a presidential sash. When he then set up a “legitimate cabinet,” he named Ms. Sheinbaum as a minister.

“Many of us didn’t want to join them in this insanity of a ‘legitimate cabinet,’” said Guadalupe Acosta Naranjo, now in the opposition, who was then part of the leftist party Mr. López Obrador belonged to.

“But she was there with him,” Mr. Acosta Naranjo said, “living in this underworld, in this alternate, parallel universe full of people who thought they were making a revolution.”

In the years that followed, Ms. Sheinbaum straddled academia and politics, but she always stayed close to Mr. López Obrador. When he founded his Morena party in 2014, he asked her to run on the party’s ticket to become mayor of Tlalpan, a borough of Mexico City. With his backing, she won.

In 2018, he was swept into the presidency in a landslide and she became Mexico City’s mayor. She quickly gained a reputation as an exacting boss.

“One doesn’t go to her meetings to tell her, ‘I’m working on it,’” said Soledad Aragón, a former member of Ms. Sheinbaum’s cabinet. When she walked into a room, Ms. Aragón said, everyone sat up straight.

The mayor could remember specific numbers mentioned in a meeting weeks after it occurred, Ms. Aragón said, calling her “brilliant” and “demanding,” especially with herself, adding: “It has gotten results.”

Five officials who have worked with Ms. Sheinbaum, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said that she was quick to anger at times and would yell at her subordinates in front of large groups. Through a spokesman, Ms. Sheinbaum declined to comment on the accusation.

Mr. Cano, the biographer, said that when he asked Ms. Sheinbaum about the “many, many stories” he had heard of her toughness as a boss, she told him: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s lazy people.”

Her defenders say some people merely reacted badly to a woman in charge.

“I know that in her government, sometimes people got offended or felt bad because she yelled at them,” said Marta Lamas, a longtime feminist activist who has been close to Ms. Sheinbaum and her team. “But if a man yells, it wouldn’t be an issue because culturally, it’s different.”

“People say it in a critical way: ‘She’s tough,’” Ms. Aragón said. “What do you want, someone soft in charge of the city?”

By the time Covid hit Mexico, Ms. Sheinbaum had eked out some space to govern her own way, empowering technocrats over party loyalists and investing in the police to fight crime, instead of relying on the military like Mr. López Obrador.

Now, in interviews, she points to the pandemic as evidence that she and Mr. López Obrador are not always aligned.

Mr. López Obrador rarely wore masks in public, suggested two amulets would protect him from Covid and did not emphasize nationwide testing. Ms. Sheinbaum tested aggressively and pushed mask-wearing.

But when scientific principles conflicted with her loyalty, Ms. Sheinbaum chose loyalty.

As Christmas approached in 2020, with hospital beds running low, the federal government misled citizens about the severity of the virus in the capital, saying it hadn’t reached the critical level of contagion that would have required a full lockdown. The capital stayed open for weeks.

Ms. Sheinbaum could have shut the city down earlier, but didn’t. The result was an enormous outbreak.

An independent commission this year called the episode “one of the most serious government failures” of the pandemic in Mexico. Ms. Sheinbaum has said she disagrees with the commission’s findings.

Ms. Sheinbaum’s behavior during the campaign has been a kind of Rorschach test for the Mexicans obsessing over what path she would take if elected president. Those who think she would break from Mr. López Obrador see signs of autonomy everywhere. Those who disagree see only obedience.

Subscribers to the first narrative point to the candidate’s appointment of well-respected experts to her campaign team, her vow to promote renewable energy and her openness to re-evaluating the military’s expansion into public enterprises.

But she has also gotten behind some of the president’s most contentious ideas.

In February, Mr. López Obrador put forth a set of profound changes to the constitution, including eliminating independent regulators and requiring Supreme Court justices to be elected by popular vote. The move provoked alarm among critics, who said the president was trying to obliterate checks and balances.

Still, a day later, Ms. Sheinbaum fell in line, holding a news conference where she announced she would adopt all his proposals as her own.

To the naysayers, this was an illustration of their worst fears: Ms. Sheinbaum following instructions from Mr. López Obrador to take steps that would harm democracy.

But Mr. de la Fuente, who is helping to design Ms. Sheinbaum’s plans, seemed to downplay the importance of the proposed changes to the judiciary.

“I wouldn’t say it is necessarily the top priority,” he said, adding that Morena would need to win a supermajority in Congress to push the measures through, something party officials see as unlikely.

Between Ms. Sheinbaum and Mr. López Obrador, he added, “There will be no confrontation, but there will be no submission.”

For years, the candidate has tried to explain how she can be so in step with the president while also being herself. The answer, she says, is simple: She genuinely believes in him.

In 2022, a radio host asked her a pointed question from a female listener: “Why don’t you choose to be a woman who governs with her own ideas? Why don’t you get out of AMLO’s circus?” she asked, using Mr. López Obrador’s nickname. “Why have the same rhetoric with the same words?”

Ms. Sheinbaum didn’t hesitate.

“If you think the same as another person, it’s not that you’re copying them; you just agree with the ideas,” she said. “You can’t deny what you believe.”

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting.



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