Meet Mexico City's First Elected Female Mayor

Jul 25, 2018
Originally published on July 25, 2018 8:36 am

Mexico's hard swing to the left in this month's national elections also swept in some other historic firsts. Women won key positions across the country, including, for the first time ever, the mayor of Mexico City.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, 56, will assume arguably the second most important political post in Mexico, after capturing nearly 50 percent of the vote in the July 1 elections.

She may not be unprecedented for a woman to hold the office. Rosario Robles served out part of a Mexico City mayoral term, from 1999 to 2000, when her boss resigned to run for president.

But it is the first time a woman has been elected the capital's mayor, considered a stepping stone to the presidency. And it comes as more and more women are seeking active roles in Mexican politics, transforming a male-dominated field. Women also won half the seats in the national and state legislatures and are expected to make up an even share of cabinet posts in the new government of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Sheinbaum beat out six other candidates for the job — just a couple of them male.

Her route to mayor has been anything but traditional. Sheinbaum holds degrees in physics and energy engineering. She did doctoral studies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, took part in a United Nations climate change panel that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and is a well-respected researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

But she doesn't want people to think she's just a science nerd. Looks can be deceiving, as she frequently pointed out in her campaign this summer.

"Don't think because you see this skinny scientist up here that we won't be strong enough to take on the subject of crime fighting," Sheinbaum told a group of supporters at a Mexico City park.

Despite her science background, Sheinbaum is no political novice. She has long ties to leftist politics and to López Obrador. He appointed her his environment minister when he was mayor of the capital in 2000. Five years later she took over one of Mexico City's largest districts, Tlalpan.

However, there she ran into controversy, especially after a 7.1 earthquake struck the capital last September, which hit her district hard.

One of the more visible reminders of the destruction in Tlalpan is an abandoned 12-unit apartment building. Twenty-two-year-old medical student Leonardo Sánchez walks by the crumbling complex every day. He's not happy Sheinbaum won for mayor.

"She couldn't even take care of this one simple building, how is she going to deal with the district or an entire city," he says.

More than 300 people were killed in the earthquake, including 19 children and seven adults who died when a school collapsed in Sheinbaum's district.

Many residents blame her for the collapse of the Enrique Rébsamen school. District officials approved shoddy construction permits, allowing the owner to build an apartment on top of the school, destabilizing the structure. Sheinbaum denies any wrong doing.

Her press office declined repeated requests for an interview.

Rosa Valdez manages a restaurant around the corner from the school. Her 14-year-old son, a student at the school, survived the collapse. She's angry that no one has been jailed and the owner of the school remains a fugitive.

"Maybe Claudia wasn't responsible for those permits," says Valdez, "but what about all the officials before her and after? Where is the justice for the dead children?"

Tackling the lingering problems in Tlalpan will need to be one of her first priorities as mayor, says José Merino, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and an adviser to Sheinbaum's campaign. That will include a complete risk management plan for the city and emergency response task forces.

"She's a peculiar specimen, she's more of a problem solver but she's really not a politician," he says.

But, he adds, she's the right public servant for Mexico now, someone with a calculating mind, set on service, and not filled with political ambitions.

And colleagues say Sheinbaum is a skilled team builder.

"I always think of her as being in that way as being confident, capable, skilled and persistent," says Lynda Price, an energy scientist who worked with Sheinbaum at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Both Sheinbaum's parents, also scientists, are children of Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria and Lithuania. Sheinbaum says she celebrated holidays at her grandparents', but her home life was secular.

She married a prominent leftist politician, who later resigned from office after being caught on video accepting large sums of cash. They divorced last year and have two children.

Her Jewish heritage didn't come up much during the campaign, despite Mexico's Catholic dominance.

Marta Lamas, a leading feminist in Mexico, says the media focused more on the mayor-elect's austere dressing style, always in a white blouse and pants, and her modest demeanor.

"Some people said that she was very serious in the campaign and 'I wish she would smile a little bit more and laugh,' " says Lamas.

Her style is direct and to the point, friends and supporters say. In that way, she may be more akin to U.S. straightforwardness than Mexican political formalities, says Merino, the campaign adviser.

"In a country like Mexico with our political protocols, some people are not used to it," he says.

But Merino says he finds it refreshing and needed at this time as Mexico City struggles with rising crime, pollution and water shortages.

Sheinbaum begins her six-year term in December.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mexico's surprising swing to the left in this month's national elections also swept in some other historic firsts. Women are now holding some of the most important positions in that country. Mexico's new Congress will be nearly 50 percent female. And the incoming mayor of Mexico City is a woman, the first female elected to that post. And she's not your typical politician, either. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this profile.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo took an unusual route to this high political post considered a stepping stone to the country's presidency. She holds degrees in physics and energy engineering, did doctoral studies at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and was part of a UN climate change panel that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. She doesn't want people to think she's just a science nerd. Looks can be deceiving, she'd like to frequently point out while on the campaign trail this summer.

CLAUDIA SHEINBAUM PARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Don't think because you see the skinny scientist up here that we won't be strong enough to take on the subject of crime fighting. With total responsibility, we will fight crime," she told a group of supporters at a Mexico City Park.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Claudia.

KAHN: Sheinbaum is no political novice, either. She has long ties to leftist politics and to President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He appointed her as environment minister when he was mayor of the capital in 2000. Five years later, she took over one of Mexico City's largest districts, Tlalpan. However, there she ran into controversy, especially after a 7.1 earthquake struck the capital last September, hitting her district hard.

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY GUARD: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: A lone security guard stands out front of an abandoned 12-unit apartment building. It's one of the more visible reminders of the destruction in Tlalpan. Twenty-two-year-old medical student Leonardo Sanchez walks by the crumbling complex every day. He's not happy Sheinbaum won for mayor.

LEONARDO SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "She couldn't even take care of this one simple building. How's she going to deal with the district or an entire city?" he says. More than 300 people were killed in the quake, including 19 children and seven adults who died when a school collapsed in Sheinbaum's district. Many blame her for the disaster. District officials approved shoddy construction permits allowing the owner to build an apartment on top of the school, destabilizing the structure. Sheinbaum denies any wrongdoing. Her press office declined repeated requests for an interview. Tackling the lingering problems in Tlalpan will need to be one of her first priorities as mayor says Jose Merino, a political scientist at the ITAM University and an adviser to Sheinbaum's campaign.

JOSE MERINO: So she's a peculiar specimen. She's more of a problem solver. But she's really not a politician.

KAHN: He says she's the right public servant for Mexico now, one with a calculating mind and not filled with political ambitions. Colleagues say Sheinbaum is a skilled team builder, too. Lynda Price, an energy scientist, worked with her during Sheinbaum's time at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

LYNDA PRICE: I always think of her in that way as being, you know, confident, capable, skilled and persistent.

KAHN: Both Sheinbaum's parents, also scientists, are children of Jewish immigrants. Sheinbaum says she celebrated holidays at her grandparents, but her home life was secular. She married a prominent leftist politician who later resigned from office after being caught on tape accepting large sums of cash. They divorced and have two children. Her Jewish heritage didn't come up much during the campaign despite Mexico's Catholic dominance. Marta Lamas, a leading feminist here, says the press was more focused on mayor elect's austere dressing style, always in a white blouse and pants, and her modest demeanor.

MARTA LAMAS: Some people said that she was very serious in the campaign. And they said, oh, I wish she would smile a little bit more and laugh.

KAHN: But that's her style, direct and to the point, say friends and supporters. Akin more to U.S. straightforwardness than Mexican political formalities says Merino, the campaign adviser.

MERINO: In a country like Mexico and with our political protocols, some people are not very used to this.

KAHN: But Merino says he finds it refreshing and needed at this time as Mexico City struggles with rising crime, pollution and water shortages. Sheinbaum begins her six-year term on December 1. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.