BOGOTA — Months before her history-making election, Claudia López was butting heads with a local television anchor over his description of her character.
“You talk sometimes like you’re arguing,” he quipped on a live segment.
“Don’t come at me with that condescending chauvinism,” she shot back.
Now the 49-year-old politician with a doctorate from Northwestern University in Chicago will take her decades-long fight against corruption and inequality to the big stage as the first elected female mayor of Colombia’s largest city.
The analyst-turned-politician’s victory is being hailed as an important advancement in a nation where women made up just over 10 per cent of all candidates aspiring to become mayors or governors in Sunday’s regional elections.
“This is a small step for me,” she said before a cheering crowd after her triumph. “But for Colombian women this is a huge step forward.”
Though her headline-making achievement is how many in Latin America will begin to know her, López has been making waves in Colombia for years, starting from her days as an analyst shedding light on corruption in the highest echelons to power. In her personal life, she’s been equally upfront and transparent, sharing a passionate kiss with her partner Sunday as the election results came in that has gone viral on social media.
The daughter of a schoolteacher will also become the first openly lesbian mayor of a capital city in Latin America, a region slowly advancing in improving LGBT rights but where long-standing cultural biases and inequality remain barriers.
“It’s a good signal that we’re sending from Bogota to the rest of the nation and Latin America,” said Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia’s Rosario University.
The eldest of six children, López likes to remind voters that unlike plenty of Colombian politicians, she bears no famous last name or inherited riches. Through scholarships and loans, she worked her way through college, first studying to become a doctor before discovering a passion for public service.
As a researcher at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, or New Rainbow Corporation, and a non-profit electoral observation mission, López investigated voting abnormalities that led to the uncovering of the so-called para-politics scandal linking scores of high-profile politicians to violent far-right militias.
López’s work was among the pieces of evidence the Supreme Court cited in eventually bringing charges against numerous politicians, a feat that brought her both acclaim and death threats, forcing her on at least one occasion to abruptly leave the country.
Renata Segura, a longtime friend and fellow researcher, recalled how López handled the dangers of her work in stride, even finding humour in it.
“She has done all of this at a very high personal cost,” Segura said. “But I never sensed doubt about continuing the investigation or withdrawing from politics.”
In 2009, she was fired from her job as a columnist at El Tiempo after criticizing the paper’s coverage of a government loan program scandal, in what supporters characterize as one more example of her fearlessness in holding the powerful accountable.
Her critics – among them former president Álvaro Uribe – say that she has at times crossed the boundary between free speech and slander.
“Claudia has maintained a critical stance against certain powerful sectors,” said Patricia Muñoz Yi, a professor at the Pontifical Xavieran University in Bogota. “For some that position has exceeded the limits of dialogue. For others, it’s the reflection of an independent personality.”
Throughout her career, López seldom made LGBT or women’s rights her sole or main issue, focusing instead on a wider array of topics from improving public education and transportation to leading the charge against corruption.
But those issues have inevitably come up both in politics and her day-to-day life.
When López became a senator in 2014, Segura recalled how one fellow legislator took to dismissively calling her “Señor Lopez” – or Mr. Lopez – a phrase that can still be found in homophobic posts criticizing her on social media.
“I think Congress was really difficult for her, having to go there every day and face those people who were really so openly aggressive and unwilling to work with her in any way,” Segura said.
But her victory Sunday may be a sign that those attitudes are slowly changing.
“The great majority of Bogotanos finally said, ‘We don’t care,'” said Antonio Navarro Wolff, a fellow Green Alliance politician who supported López’s bid for mayor.
López will have her work cut out for her: She won with about 35 per cent of the vote, far less than a majority, meaning she will need to work to unite disparate political sectors and gain the backing of a wider segment of the population.
“That’s not going to be anything easy,” Gallego said.
Several voters who cast ballots for López said Monday they believe she has the best shot at delivering on issues like improving the city’s deteriorating public education system and fulfilling longstanding promises to bring a metro to Bogota.
“Claudia said she’s going to change this city,” said Luis Ramirez, 35, a guard at a private business. “Hopefully she does.”
Associated Press writer César García contributed to this report.
Christine Armario, The Associated Press