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Fox's First Lady Sizing Up Her New Shoes

Mexico: She has quit her job as spokeswoman, but Martha Sahagun appears unlikely to relegate herself to a traditionally ceremonial role.

July 05, 2001|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Now that Mexico's most talked about office romance has ended with the marriage of President Vicente Fox and Martha Sahagun, the bride can turn to shaping her new role as possibly the most public, powerful and controversial first lady this nation has ever had.

Mexican first ladies traditionally have been ornaments whose only official task is the largely ceremonial role of leading the country's major family welfare agency. But Martha Sahagun de Fox is unlikely to fit that mold after living, eating and breathing politics at her new husband's side the last six years and playing such an important role in his rise to power.

"It's possible we will have a first lady different from the past ones. But she will be discreet," said Hector Gonzalez Reza, a federal congressman representing Mexico City and a member of Fox's National Action Party.

More than a paramour, the 48-year-old Sahagun was one of Fox's three or four closest advisors during the "Long March" presidential campaign that culminated in a historic victory last July. She was his top spokesperson and gatekeeper until she resigned Monday, hours after the couple traded wedding bands.

A Pillar of Support During Fox's Campaign

By all accounts, Sahagun encouraged Fox to be his iconoclastic, outgoing self on the campaign trail, while she took on much of the day-to-day campaign details. The public's impression of the candidate as natural and unpackaged helped him secure the first opposition victory over an Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, presidential candidate in 71 years and earn the immense popularity that Fox enjoys today.

"She helped Fox, who is naturally upbeat and gregarious, take advantage of these qualities," said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. "She encouraged him to speak the language of the people, sometimes a bit crude, mix with crowds, present himself as a maverick."

Sahagun is admired as a tireless and studious worker. She also is a charismatic and shrewd businesswoman who helped develop her first husband's veterinary supplies business into one of the largest in Mexico. Like her new husband, she doesn't shrink from challenges.

"Her title might have changed yesterday, but she is not going to stop doing things. Ever since she was a little girl, she has shown a talent for organization, hard work and making friends," Alberto Sahagun, her brother and a radiologist in Michoacan state, said this week. "I don't think she will retire."

But she was criticized for her work as Fox's spokeswoman at the state and federal levels. Many members of the media thought that she was overly protective of and proprietary about Fox and reluctant to delegate authority. As his "absolute guardian," she was quick to jump to his defense--sometimes rashly--when she sensed that he had been undercut.

Setting Precedents at Presidential Residence

After Sahagun criticized Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda in April for remarks he had made about Cuba, Fox made a public profession of support for the official, leaving the spokeswoman with egg on her face.

She has also shown a propensity, both during Fox's governorship in Guanajuato state and his presidency, to overstep the bounds of her job, insiders say. She participated in high-level meetings at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, where a spokeswoman's presence was not standard operating procedure, insiders say. She was often "flitting in and out of meetings" that Fox presided over, to use one recent visitor's phrase, causing some to question her professionalism.

"She has vision for the future and true executive qualities but also ambition for power, as shown by her overdone presence at meetings where government decisions were made, in activities that are unrelated to a job in public relations," one Guanajuato official said.

The official and others who spoke about the Foxes requested anonymity to avoid the ire of the first couple.

What no one doubts is her absolute devotion to Fox and his cause. Early in Fox's political career, Sahagun and her former husband, Manuel Bribiesca, joined the legion of "Vicente addicts" in Guanajuato, swooning over the future president's missionary zeal and belief that he could conquer the entrenched PRI.

"They were enthusiastic, as many others were in Guanajuato, because they could feel Fox was a genuine leader good enough to make changes," a state official said. "One of the high virtues of Vicente is to transform ordinary citizens into political citizens."

Fox and Sahagun have been inseparable since he won the gubernatorial race in 1995. He soon appointed Sahagun as his chief spokesperson, a job for which she had no training or experience.

Rafael Alberto Diaz, who has Sahagun's old job as spokesman for Guanajuato's government, said what some might see as her amateurism was what attracted Fox, who wanted to "break the old paradigms."

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