Mexico’s Maverick ‘Ms. X’ Embraces Pragmatism in Presidential Bid

Mexican lawmaker Xochitl Galvez, who wore an inflatable dinosaur costume to the senate last year to mock President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and prefers to navigate the chaotic capital by bicycle, is better known for her knack for political theater than policy gravitas.

(Bloomberg) — Mexican lawmaker Xochitl Galvez, who wore an inflatable dinosaur costume to the senate last year to mock President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and prefers to navigate the chaotic capital by bicycle, is better known for her knack for political theater than policy gravitas. 

Now, the senator is putting herself forward as the practical pick in next year’s presidential election, saying she wants to supercharge growth by unleashing private energy investment and attracting more business to Mexico with pragmatic economic and trade policies.

Galvez, who grew up in poverty and was a businesswoman before entering politics, is due to face off against the popular president’s longtime protégé, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, in the June election. Her ascent, and backing by Mexico’s fading establishment parties, has brought energy to a race that many thought was dead on arrival just a few months ago. 

In an interview at Bloomberg’s Mexico City office, Galvez said she’d protect the working poor and exploited women, agreeing with much of Lopez Obrador’s progressive social rhetoric that have won him high approval ratings after five years in office. But she criticized his strategy of pouring money into the debt-ridden state oil company and sprawling public works projects, saying she would instead make the rich pay more taxes, liberalize the energy sector and attract companies seeking to “nearshore” production back to North America.

Lopez Obrador’s followers “don’t represent the left – a leftist strategy that bets on fossil fuels? I’m dying of laughter. I, however, do represent those dreams of social justice,” said Galvez, 60, who says she sold Jell—O on the streets as a child and considers herself center-left. “This isn’t about left or right any more. This is about growing the economy but redistributing wealth.”

The straight-talking senator with a part-indigenous background has stood out in Mexico’s political establishment. Much of the attention sprung from her eye-catching stunts, including her unsuccessful demand to be allowed to confront Lopez Obrador during his press conferences in the presidential palace. She adopted the nickname “Ms. X” as a retort to his claim that she was a nobody. 

Galvez knows the odds are stacked against her in the race to become Mexico’s first female president. Polls show Galvez between 9 to 17 points behind Sheinbaum, who is backed by the ruling Morena party which holds two-thirds of the country’s governorships. 

“She has all the public resources at her disposal. I’ve seen the hundreds of campaign buses in the states and the hundreds of advertisements,” said Galvez of her rival. “She has the main backer of her campaign, the president of the country. She has had tremendous media coverage. But I’ve faced that and worse in life.”

She said she’s shrunk dizzying polling gaps before, albeit in a low-profile race to become the local mayor of a district of Mexico City and an unsuccessful bid to govern her home state of Hidalgo. On the campaign trail, Galvez has presented herself as the anti-establishment character able to connect with poorer Mexicans, in some ways pulling lines from Lopez Obrador’s playbook of focusing on poverty, crime and corruption. Cartel violence, entwined with the state, is blamed for the disappearance of about 100,000 people in the past few decades.

Galvez has been talking a lot lately, and eases her throat with drops of agave syrup while complaining that her team has made her stop cycling around town for security reasons. Some say her homespun style poses a threat to Sheinbaum, a university professor from Mexico City who can come across as wooden on the campaign trail and was mocked for adopting Lopez Obrador’s manner of speech during a tour of the country’s south. 

Energy Reforms, ‘Nearshoring’

Galvez’s professed love for renewables also exposes Sheinbaum’s struggle to align her credentials as an environmental engineer with her mentor’s dedication to state oil firm Pemex. Galvez wants to figure out a way for Mexico to increase the use of renewable energies, though she’s not saying it’s time to entirely divorce from all oil. For now, she’s calling to prioritize using oil for petrochemicals and renewables for electricity.

“You have to be very stupid to bet on fossil fuels, because beyond being expensive, it’s dirty, so with Mexico’s potential in green hydrogen, in renewables, public policy is in green energy — there’s no doubt,” she said. “Oil is too valuable to be burned to produce electricity, oil should be used for the petrochemical industry, which has been very abandoned.”

Galvez has been criticized for leaning too heavily on her rags-to-riches story, and her antics haven’t always lent her an image of authority. Critics also point out she’s had just one term as senator, and her only other meaningful elected role was three years as local mayor of a district in Mexico City.

In the interview, which lasted for over half an hour, she described how she would drive economic growth, including a six-point plan to capitalize on “nearshoring,” the relocation of supply chains by companies that have been burned by US-China geopolitics and pandemic-driven logistics snarls. 

“People are looking for an opportunity to pull ahead, and for me, that opportunity is nearshoring,” she said. “It’s an opportunity that we won’t have again for many decades.”

Mexico could attract more of those firms by training its workforce in skills like coding, improving its sub-par infrastructure, delivering cheap and clean energy and making serious efforts to manage scarce resources like water, she said. 

“All these companies require a very specific expertise, so we have to work on that human capital,” Galvez said. “There are thousands of Mexicans that want to move forward.”

Asked about monetary policy and exchange rates, she said the “super peso,” propped up by the central bank’s record-high interest rates, was hurting the country’s exporters. 

“The super peso has to do with the high interest rates in our country and it’s not entirely positive for the export industry,” she said, adding the central bank ought to cut rates from the current 11.25% to bolster private investment. 

Galvez has a delicate needle to thread as she backs the interests of businesses while nodding at calls for wealth redistribution. She will also need to show a deft hand in maintaining the backing of the coalition of three opposition parties, while not being seen as a creature of those same institutions, which enjoy little love from voters. 

Galvez, who is a senator for the conservative PAN but never formally joined the party, could also lose votes to ex-foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard if he follows through on a hint that he might split with Morena after losing to Sheinbaum in a selection process he said was marred by irregularities.

“Sheinbaum remains favored to win in an election against Galvez,” analysts for Eurasia Group consultancy wrote Thursday. “Voters remain satisfied with Morena’s results despite the deteriorating security situation and worsening health services. Thus, support for continuity will be high.”

Lopez Obrador has accused Galvez of corruption in her business dealings, without providing concrete evidence, and spends hours every week railing against his conservative opponents in his daily press conferences. 

Despite this, Galvez said, she wouldn’t shut down all of his key projects. If elected, she said, she would also try to salvage pieces of some projects he has dropped. This could include tackling the quagmire of the capital’s airspace by connecting Mexico City’s aging main airport with unused runways meant for a canceled $13 billion airport in Texcoco. 

“What’s good will keep going, what’s ok will be corrected and keep going, and what’s bad will change. We have to study each part,” she said, adding that she also wanted to continue the president’s investment in a land corridor that seeks to compete with the Panama Canal. 

While she has lambasted the president’s failure to tackle violence via a strategy he calls “hugs not bullets,” Galvez is yet to propose a specific approach beyond strengthening local police forces and turning the National Guard, which Lopez Obrador envisioned as a hybrid civilian-military troop, back into a federal civilian police. 

She is more clear about her intention to reverse Lopez Obrador’s drive to put the military at the heart of public life. Despite winning office on a campaign against the army’s human rights abuses, he has placed the armed forces or national guard in charge of everything from the country’s ports, vaccine distribution and watching over Mexico City’s metro system after a crash.

“I love the military. I have a brother who’s an army general. I’ve known soldiers for many years but they are needed for something else,” she said. “They have to take care of national security.”

US Over China

On diplomatic relations, Galvez said she would be guided by two compasses: a respect for “democratic countries that protect human rights” and a grounding in “reality.” 

Lopez Obrador has occasionally leaned away from Washington toward the position of emerging market leaders who have been respectful of Vladimir Putin even while criticizing the war in Ukraine. Last year, he snubbed US President Joe Biden’s invitation to a regional summit in Los Angeles after the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela weren’t invited.

Galvez condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and said she would prioritize Mexico’s relationship with the US over trade with China. 

“We need to have a dialogue with China but for me, the priority is where Mexico is located. Mexico is part of North America and I say there is a bipolar world today, because China is one pole and the other pole is the US, that’s the reality,” she said. “I know where I am located and I do know with whom I want to have a commercial relationship.”

Galvez said she would strike a pragmatic “win-win” deal with Donald Trump if he were elected US president. 

She also called for “clear, head-on, direct” US-Mexico collaboration on the drug war – a relationship that has near disintegrated under Lopez Obrador. She didn’t offer new policy proposals but outlined a reset in a dialogue that has often descended into recrimination. 

“Mexico is sending them drugs, but from up there they’re sending money and weapons, so let’s stop blaming each other,” she said. “We’re going to get serious and we’re going to make a strategy that benefits both countries.”

Galvez pointed to her training as an engineer in explaining her pragmatic approach.

“My friends on the left say to me, ‘You’re a petit bourgeois because you’re a businesswoman.’ Well yes, but I also pushed for domestic workers in this country to have social security,” she said. “I am a person who generates wealth, but who is also very conscious that this wealth has to be redistributed and the country made less unequal.”

–With assistance from Andrea Navarro.

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