SHE’S JEWISH: Claudia Sheinbaum Is Likely To Be Mexico’s Next President. Who Is She?

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MEXICO CITY – Claudia Sheinbaum was fuming.

The presidential candidate held a comfortable lead in the polls as her party’s primary got underway last summer. But one afternoon, as she was entering a hotel for a meeting, she was confronted by dozens of her top rival’s supporters, chanting that the contest was rigged.

The normally stoic Sheinbaum strode inside and upbraided Alfonso Durazo, the official coordinating the primaries for the Morena party.

“Wherever I arrive, I want to be respected,” she declared, jabbing the table. “Do you understand?”

The scene, captured on video, went viral. “We’d never seen Claudia Sheinbaum this way, with this strong character, this anger,” noted TV journalist Joaquin López-Dóriga.

Sheinbaum, 61, is poised to make history as Mexico’s first female president and first Jewish head of state. Polls a week before Mexico’s election show her enjoying a wide lead over the next candidate, the conservative entrepreneur Xóchitl Gálvez. She has an impressive résumé, with a PhD in environmental engineering and a term as Mexico City mayor.

Still, after nearly a quarter-century in the public eye, she remains an enigma, known mainly as the low-key protégé of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the charismatic leader known as AMLO.

The question is whether a President Sheinbaum could step out of his shadow and govern a violence-racked country whose political institutions are in flux.

The Morena party, founded by AMLO in 2014, has become the 800-pound gorilla of Mexican politics, controlling Congress and 23 of 32 governorships. While Sheinbaum is the presidential candidate, the party faithful maintain an intense loyalty to AMLO of the sort that Donald Trump’s base has for him.

“It’s clear to me she wants to be her own person. But we are in an unprecedented situation,” said political analyst Carlos Heredia, who advised AMLO when he was mayor of Mexico City. “Instead of power being centered in the Mexican state, it’s in one person.”

Sheinbaum is so closely tethered to AMLO that she sometimes adopts his slow, pause-filled style of speaking. Yet her profile is distinctly different. He frequently cites his Christian beliefs. She’s not religious; she rarely discusses her Jewish heritage. (Her grandparents migrated from Lithuania and Bulgaria to escape discrimination and Nazi persecution.)

AMLO doesn’t speak English and dislikes traveling abroad. Sheinbaum did postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley; her sister and daughter live in the United States.

The president, raised in Mexico’s poorer south, has the kind of folksy, small-town charm that catapulted Bill Clinton to the presidency. Sheinbaum grew up among the intellectual elite in the capital, enjoying daily ballet lessons and private tutoring in French.

What unites the two is a passion for political activism.

Sheinbaum’s parents were committed leftists, with a copy of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” hidden in the closet. Her mother, a biology professor, lost her job for participating in the 1968 student-led demonstrations against the one-party system that ruled Mexico for decades.

“In my house, we talked about politics at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Sheinbaum told the journalist Arturo Cano for his biography “Claudia Sheinbaum: Presidenta.”

As an undergraduate at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country’s flagship university, Sheinbaum plunged into student politics. Rosaura Ruiz, an academic and family friend, recalled Sheinbaum’s passion for helping the poor. At one point, Ruiz said, Sheinbaum spent weeks in an Indigenous community in the central state of Michoacán, designing more efficient wood-burning stoves for poor women.

“She decided that by studying science, she could contribute more to Mexico,” Ruiz said.

Perhaps the most transformative moment for Sheinbaum was a student strike she helped organize in 1987 to fight a plan to raise university fees. She became part of a new generation of leftist politicians emerging from the university as the one-party system was crumbling. Many became prominent in the Revolutionary Democratic party, and helped AMLO become mayor of Mexico City in 2000.

As mayor, AMLO made Sheinbaum his environment secretary and entrusted her with one of his key projects: The construction of a “second story” for the Periférico, the highway that rings the capital. If he was the charming politician, known for cracking jokes at daily news conferences and scooting around the city in a white Volkswagen Jetta, she was the disciplined engineer who delivered projects on time.

In 2018, a public disgusted with corruption, violence and a sluggish economy voted overwhelmingly to make AMLO president. Sheinbaum, meanwhile, became Mexico City’s first elected female mayor.

In many ways, Sheinbaum’s mayoralty was an exercise in pragmatism. To battle crime, she brought in Omar García Harfuch, the former head of Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI, who had worked closely with U.S. law enforcement. He was the scion of a police family despised by many on the left; his grandfather was defense secretary in 1968 when security forces massacred hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, many of them students, in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco plaza.

Sheinbaum claims that homicides dropped by half on her watch. Analysts have questioned her figures, noting that a growing number of violent deaths – around 30 percent – are classified as “undefined,” and not counted in murder statistics. Still, political scientist Rodrigo Peña said, “we’ve seen a very important drop in many crimes.”

Sheinbaum’s government created a special police intelligence unit, encouraged cooperation between prosecutors and cops, and turned to experts for innovative ideas, including techniques from Operation Ceasefire, a program developed to reduce gang violence in Boston.

“One of Claudia Sheinbaum’s great merits is that she made a political bet on maintaining a civilian police force,” Peña said. AMLO, as president, has taken the opposite approach, cutting funds for local police while expanding the military’s role in fighting crime.

Environmentalists view Sheinbaum’s performance in office as mixed. She battled Mexico’s powerful energy chief, Manuel Bartlett, to get funds to cover the city’s wholesale food market in solar panels. But she has also ardently defended AMLO’s efforts to roll back a 2013 energy reform that gave a bigger role to the private sector and renewables.

Urban policy analysts say she is better known for highly visible projects – bike lanes, electric buses, cable cars to poor neighborhoods – than for a long-term vision. Her “big political sin” was inadequate upkeep of the sprawling Metro system, said Erika Alcantar, a professor of urban studies at UNAM.

In May 2021, a Metro overpass collapsed, killing 26 people. Sheinbaum hired a Norwegian consulting firm to investigate the causes. She praised its initial reports, which blamed construction errors that occurred under her predecessors. But when the firm’s final report also cited poor maintenance, she called it “biased and false.”

Sheinbaum isn’t known for her charisma. “In general, I’m an introverted person,” she told Cano.

Her political shortcomings were apparent in the June 2021 midterm elections. Morena won less than half of the 16 borough presidencies in Mexico City, the left’s political base for decades. While the vote represented a middle-class backlash against AMLO, analysts said, it also reflected Sheinbaum’s inability to turn out a strong pro-Morena vote.

If she ascends to the presidency, she faces a colossal task. López Obrador has managed a balancing act: Keeping the competing factions of Morena in line, maintaining the country’s stability as criminal groups fought for territory, protecting his idea of national sovereignty while satisfying U.S. demands on drugs, commerce and migration.

But he had strong support from Morena.

“This is his party,” Heredia said. “Sheinbaum will have to construct her own power base.”

AMLO, who relishes the spotlight, says he’ll retire to his ranch when his term ends in October and leave politics. Mexicans are skeptical.

AMLO has already set part of Sheinbaum’s agenda. He’s laid out proposals that are central to her campaign, including a constitutional amendment to elect Supreme Court judges by popular vote.

That’s alarmed Mexicans, who fear AMLO supporters would cast ballots for his allies. He has already weakened independent institutions such as the electoral board. If Morena wins the congressional supermajority necessary to pass the amendment, the party could gain control of all three branches of government.

Sheinbaum scoffs at the idea that AMLO would continue to run the government.

“Let’s see,” she told Cano. “A woman can’t do things, and needs a man behind her to tell her what to do?”

(c) 2024, The Washington Post · Mary Beth Sheridan, Lorena Ríos 


  1. WOW! I don’t think I have ever seen so many pixels spent on, li’havdil, ANY of our leaders (while they were alive)!

    Something to think about.

  2. How be it ever that Freemen shall stand! Her greatgrandfather Reb Hayyim Goyavekshoin as the Imperial Treesurgein in Charge of Nagasaiki. He got a Mexican entry permit in exchange for . . . oh let’s not talk about that on a haimische news service. She is a direct direct descendant of Queen Isabella of Spain, no less. The Franciscans are anxious to have her proclaimed the Millennial Lady!


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