Fox's First Lady Sizing Up Her New Shoes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

"For many it was a handicap for Martha that she knew little about relations with the media. But Vicente saw a virtue right there," Diaz said. "He thought maybe Martha could balance her lack of expertise with engagement."

At some point, the professional relationship turned personal. By last summer's presidential election it had become apparent to everyone who saw them together that, to use a Spanish saying, Sahagun "drank the air that Vicente breathed."

"At the beginning she could hide it, but by and by it was evident," said a onetime mayor in Guanajuato. "People who were on the same plane accompanying them could feel how the sentimental relations were growing."

The couple have much in common: Both are charismatic, gregarious, detail-minded perfectionists. Sahagun, a former teacher, found in politics generally--and Fox personally--her true calling.

"My main responsibility is to work at constructing, day by day, that future . . . which is President Fox's," Sahagun said in an interview last week with La Jornada newspaper here. "A project, to make a long story short, I have given all. Life itself."

Sahagun was born into a prominent family in Zamora, Michoacan. She was a popular student who was elected president of her high school class before dropping out to get married. She later completed work to get her high school diploma.

Their father, Dr. Alberto Sahagun, set a strong civic example for his family as founder of Zamora's San Jose Hospital and a nursing school, said the first lady's sister, Beatriz, a Zamora city registrar. As teenagers, the sisters spent time in Ireland, where Martha became fluent in English.

Sahagun and her first husband moved from Michoacan to Guanajuato state in the late 1970s, when Bribiesca was offered a veterinarian job by an insurance company in the city of Celaya. Over the years, their wholesale supply business gradually grew to such proportions that it eclipsed Bribiesca's practice, thanks to Sahagun's efforts, her brother said.

Although her side of the family always shied away from politics, Sahagun's innate interest was piqued by Bribiesca's father, who was a federal congressman for the National Action Party in the 1980s. Her hard work in the local political trenches soon caught Fox's attention. She made an unsuccessful run for Celaya's mayoralty in 1994.

"She is a self-made woman whom Fox admires and respects," said Yemile Mizrahi, a researcher at Mexico City's Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

Sahagun separated from Bribiesca in 1998 and received a divorce last year. Fox was divorced by his first wife in 1992. Sahagun has three children from her previous marriage; Fox has four from his.

The couple was thought to be waiting for church annulments of their previous marriages to exchange vows. But growing political criticism of Sahagun's dual roles of presidential girlfriend and spokesperson may have pushed them to the altar.

Beatriz Sahagun said her sister "seeks challenges and does not give up easily. Her virtue is responsibility. I guess that is why she has achieved this. Fox praises these kinds of virtues, which may have brought them together."

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Times researcher Rafael Aguirre in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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