Mexican Candidates' Wives Seek Low Profile

The Associated Press
Monday, June 19, 2006; 1:02 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's current first lady became tabloid fodder after insisting on a very untraditional political role alongside her husband, President Vicente Fox. The women most likely to replace her say they want a much lower profile _ more like Laura Bush's role in the United States.

Marta Sahagun made moves never before seen in a Mexican first lady, insisting on a leadership role in social policies and even flirting with the idea of running for president herself. That earned her frequent _ and unkind _ comparisons to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has pursued her own political career since President Clinton left office.

Only two of the three main Mexican presidential candidates are married: Felipe Calderon, of Fox's National Action Party, and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"The people are choosing the president of the republic, not me ... and I won't look for any political post," Calderon's wife, Margarite Zavala, told The Associated Press in an interview.

Madrazo's wife, Isabel de la Parra, said the same in a written response to the AP.

Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party, who shares the lead in the race with the conservative Calderon, became a widower in 2003 after his wife died of lupus. He insists on keeping his personal life private, and while he has been romantically linked to journalist Beatriz Gutierrez, he said in a television interview last month that he has no intention of installing anyone as first lady.

"There won't be a first lady or a 'presidential couple,'" said Lopez Obrador, who also said he would keep to just a few rooms in a corner of the National Palace, rather than live in the luxurious presidential retreat of "Los Pinos" where Fox and Sahagun stay.

Gutierrez, for her part, agreed with the two other candidates' wives, saying first ladies should have a "marginal" role.

Zavala is the most politically active of the women, holding a federal lawmaker's post while her husband served as Fox's energy secretary. But she resigned to help Calderon run for president, and says her political career would end with her husband's victory.

In the past, Mexican first ladies were content to quietly lead Mexico's social welfare agency. But Sahagun, who left her first husband to pursue a political career, wasn't about to stay in Fox's shadow.

Fox was divorced before he won the presidency in 2000, and Sahagun was his spokeswoman. The two were married in a secret ceremony exactly a year later, and she stayed in the limelight from then on.

Sahagun founded a private, nonprofit foundation called "Let's Go, Mexico!" and began raising millions of dollars to solve a laundry list of the nation's ills. Critics said the effort undermined government projects and raised questions about where the foundation's donations went. Sahagun denied all allegations of misuse, and defended the foundation's mission.

Encouraged by polls that gave her high approval ratings, she considered a run for the presidency this year until widespread criticism forced her to drop the idea.

Fox has defended his wife, saying that they weren't just a married couple, but a "presidential couple," indicating that he relied heavily on his wife when making daily decisions.

That angered Mexicans who argued they voted for Fox, not Sahagun.

One of Sahagun's most outspoken critics, writer Guadalupe Loaeza, said Sahagun "stupidly" broke the first lady mold.

"It's fine for her to express herself, have her own voice, her own programs, but she never should have suggested running as a possible candidate," she said. "It's never before been seen in a first lady."

Sahagun was also criticized for spending too much for designer clothing and for letting her children, all from her first marriage, take advantage of presidential perks. Two of her sons are being investigated for allegedly conspiring to buy government properties at a fraction of their worth. Sahagun and Fox have denied the accusations as politically motivated.

De la Parra says she doesn't even like the term "first lady." If Madrazo, running third in the polls, is elected, she plans to focus all her energy on supporting her husband.

Calderon's wife, Zavala, said it's not about women's rights or justice, but "political prudence."

"I know that I've never had the experience of being the wife of the president of the republic, but one thing I know about is politics," she said. "And it seems that this is a waste of time and would require from my part an effort that doesn't seem healthy for my family."

© 2006 The Associated Press