Michelle Ertischek and her husband Julio Guzman, who was a candidate for the presidency of Peru, in Paracas, Peru, a couple weeks after their 2011 wedding. (Courtesy of Michelle Ertischek)

Update, March 9: Peru’s National Jury of Elections denied Julio Guzman’s appeal Wednesday, barring him from the presidential race. In a 3-to-2 vote, the board deemed Guzman ineligible because his campaign did not properly register his presidential ticket, Reuters reported. Alleging the process is corrupt, his campaign vowed to attempt another appeal and file a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

***

The day Michelle Ertischek went on her last first date, she wasn’t expecting anything special. She had been on more first meetings than she could count. At 37, Ertischek was living the typical D.C. single professional life. Her résumé touted a master’s degree and an impressive job in pharmaceutical consulting. Her weekends, she remembers fondly, were filled with traveling, hiking and friends who were like family.

But in her U Street apartment, it was just her. She had decorated a designated “romance corner” — a feng shui trick for finding love — with a fig plant and pictures of orchids taken on a hiking trip in Peru, then waited, and hoped.

So in July 2010, after she walked into the restaurant of the W Hotel to meet yet another brunch date, those orchids suddenly felt like a sign. The man was from Peru.

Soon, he became her husband. Now, he might become his country’s president.

Julio Guzman is in a tightly contested race in Lima, where he’s risen from an unknown economist to a political star with a real chance at winning. His candidacy is hanging in the balance, though: On Friday, the electoral board reversed a previous decision and declared Guzman ineligible to run for the presidency, claiming that his party was not properly registered. But the board is reviewing his appeal Tuesday. If granted, Guzman stands to be a significant threat to the establishment candidates and what he calls “the corrupt system that wants to cling to power.”

He’s currently in second place behind Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who was jailed in 2009 for crimes against humanity. Just like the other candidates in the race, she has run for elected office in the past. Guzman, a 45-year-old economist with a PhD in public policy, is the arena’s newcomer.



Julio Guzman is greeted by supporters after a press conference in Lima on March 4. (Ernesto Arias/European Pressphoto Agency)

But the real newcomer is his wife: Ertischek, not long ago your typical Washington consultant who now has a shot at becoming first lady of Peru.

“I had been to Peru for five days on an amazing hiking trip in 2007. And at the end of it, I said ‘Bye, Peru, thank you!’ I thought that would be it,” Ertischek said Sunday, calling from Lima while their 1-year-old daughter, Clara, napped.

She knew Guzman was different from the first moments of their date. His way of saying hello was to wrap her in a full-out hug. His questions weren’t just: “How many siblings do you have?” He asked, “What’s your relationship with your brother like?”

“I wanted to see him again,” Ertischek said. “And that didn’t happen very often.”

Guzman was in the United States working at the Inter-American Development Bank after finishing public policy degrees at Georgetown and the University of Maryland. He was married once before and had two kids back in Peru. He had no plans at the time to run for office. (Though Ertischek’s mother often asks, ‘Are you sure he didn’t mention this?’”) The couple had been dating for a year when the Peruvian government called and offered Guzman a job.

Ertischek took the leap. She moved to Peru in September 2011, and the couple was married in Virginia that December. She got to keep her job as director of pharmaceutical risk management at Pinney Associates, which made the transition to South America a little easier. He alternated between positions under the country’s prime minister and jobs in the private sector.

Three years in, Ertischek was starting to feel stable in Peru. She had learned Spanish through podcasts and lessons, met Peruvian and American friends, loved being a stepmom and was excited to have a child of her own. She had become accustomed to all the little details of a South American living: not having screens on her windows, keeping gas in the kitchen for her stove, grocery store clerks always asking to walk her bags home for her.

And that’s when her husband decided to run for president.

He was fed up with his country’s government and had the academic and career background to make waves. From his announcement in March 2015, his campaign excited young voters and “Peruvians looking for someone new in a race dominated by well-known but unpopular politicians,” according to Reuters.

Unlike political spouses in American, Ertischek was not immediately thrust into the spotlight. There was no standing behind her husband at speeches, no waving to crowds or giving interviews. She didn’t even have to appear in the campaign’s promotional materials.

But then pundits and opponents started to question how Guzman was supporting his family while on the campaign trail. It was time for Ertischek to make her debut and point out something that would have been obvious back in Washington: A wife can earn a living, too.

The campaign posted her photo on its Facebook page. Smiling into the camera, she held a piece of paper that said, “#SoyMujerYParoLaOlla.”

“I am a woman and I am a breadwinner.”


(Courtesy Michelle Ertischek via Julio Guzman Facebook page)

“As a wife and mother, I am proud to contribute financially to our home,” Ertischek wrote in Spanish. “I feel that I am using my education to make a difference. I like to be a good role model for my children and I believe in working hard.”

The hashtag went viral and became a rallying cry for female voters, who posted photos of themselves with similar messages.

“In the U.S., this wouldn’t have been a big deal,” Ertischek said. “But for these women, it was a brave action to take. For all age groups, it was taking a risk to put themselves out there.”

Ertischek went from being an observer of politics — as residents of Washington have no choice but to be — to participating in it. Her husband, second place in a crowded field and polling at 16.6 percent Monday, was a target in a campaign she sees as full of “dirty money.”

“He’s fighting for a world where you don’t need to pass money to gain a place” in government, she said. “We talk about the American dream. Well, there’s a Peruvian dream too.”

If Guzman were to win, Ertischek would continue her job as a long-distance pharmaceutical consultant. The family would not be able to stay in the apartment where they now live, but they probably would choose not to live in the residential quarters of the ornate presidential palace. They would find a new house, where she would take on yet another transition: trying to figure out what she as first lady can do for Peru.

But there’s still an election board decision to be overturned, and 18 points to catch up to the front-runner before election day, April 10. But Guzman doesn’t have to win; if he can get second place, he will face the first-place candidate in a runoff election in June.