What Spain’s Populist, Gender-Neutral Mayoral Shift Could Mean for America in 2016 (June 17, 2015)

spanish pop

Last weekend, the Spanish cities of Madrid and Barcelona put the official celebratory touches on a revolutionary transition that occurred during May’s municipal elections. In Madrid, 71 year-old retired judge Manuela Carmena’s supporters leveraged a bit of the Obama slogan magic (“Yes We Can!”) in a jubilant mayoral oath of office ceremony that promised real populist change for the third largest city in the European Union.

Throughout her campaign, Carmena warned both supporters and detractors that she and her team “want to lead by listening to people who don’t use fancy titles to address us…We’re creating a new kind of politics that doesn’t fit within the conventions…Get ready.”

621 kilometers away, housing market reform champion Ada Colau, 41, became the first-ever female mayor of Barcelona, claiming victory with a platform that includes an anti-eviction approach for struggling homeowners. The rise to power of the two women in two different Spanish cities is striking for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Spain’s conservative Popular Party, which currently runs the national government, has struggled mightily to reverse the country’s losses in the wake of the Great Recession. This party ruled Madrid for 24 years prior to Carmena’s win at the polls. Not any longer.  And in a commitment to fellow Barcelonians which demonstrates that change begins with the executive office, a June 14 report from RT.com states that Colau’s “administration will now draft a list of 30 measures aimed at creating jobs and fighting corruption. Along with her colleague in Madrid, Colau announced that she will slash her salary from €140,000, down to €35,000.”

Beyond the profound shift in political party loyalty among voters in the EU’s fifth-largest economy, where the unemployment rate hovers around 24 percent, the disparate ages of the new mayors is also significant. In a 2016 American Presidential primary contest where GOP candidates such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio are looking to frame the election as a “generational choice,” the voters of Madrid and Barcelona sent a very different message. Age? Not important as long as you’re willing to make a profound break with the status quo.

Lastly, beyond casual mention of the genders of Carmena and Colau, and the historical note of Colau’s demographic singularity as the new mayor of Barcelona, the story is not of two women in a still male-dominated political landscape. The narrative thread, rather, is exactly what it should be. As Colau put it, “In Barcelona…a bet was made for change.”

So what do these international events portend for the 2016 general Presidential election?  Beginning with the 2013 referendum in New York City that saw liberal Democrat Bill DeBlasio ride a populist wave of Occupy Wall Street sentiment to the mayor’s residence, the country’s urban left has been louder and more demonstrative. One need only listen to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech to understand the powerful effect vocal liberal heroes such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had on moving the candidate’s platform sharply to the left. And as our own Jason Easley reported on May 22, self-reported liberals now outnumber conservatives.

It may have taken a decade longer than we can rightfully spare with such a lengthy and challenging list of obstacles standing between us and a return to the nation’s middle class solvency, but the growing consensus at home and overseas is clear. If ignorance is the greatest tool of oppression, the right is running out of arrows. The 99 percent knows it’s getting a raw deal, has in fact been receiving one for decades. During each post- Bush 44 election cycle, repudiation of the conservative economic “plan” grows stronger. If we move the conversation away from the age, gender and race of the 2016 candidates (an admittedly tall order), we are left with more than 80 percent of the electorate residing in urban, liberal-skewing hubs waiting for their Spanish moment.

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