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Pedro Kumamoto


For shaking up Mexico’s corrupt machine politics

Member of the Jalisco State Congress
Pedro Kumamoto

In September, after just two years in state congress, Pedro Kumamoto announced his run for a seat in the Mexican Senate. The 27-year-old political wunderkind’s platform of radical pragmatism has already shattered long-standing assumptions about politics in his home state of Jalisco, where as the first-ever independent lawmaker in state congress he has managed to work with the political establishment to dismantle the political establishment. Now he is looking to test his post-partisan political philosophy at the national level — but first he has to convince enough voters that far from a dirty word, compromise can be a powerful political weapon.

“Almost anything can be settled through discourse, concrete approaches, and good judgment,” Kumamoto said in 2016. “When you are not guided by an ideological beacon, two things can happen: You can get lost, or you can build different truths with different people.”

To say that Kumamoto was an unlikely congressional candidate is a considerable understatement. When he launched his campaign in 2015, the “dark-skinned leftist,” as he describes himself, was running in a predominantly white, conservative district. He was also a 25-year-old independent who received just $1,100 in public financing (he raised another $13,000 in small donations). But in June 2015, three years and a month after his election as student body president of ITESO, a Jesuit university in Guadalajara, he won in a landslide against candidates from Mexico’s most powerful and entrenched political parties.

Political analysts initially doubted whether a lone independent lawmaker could do much to shake up the state’s notoriously corrupt political machine. But Kumamoto has proved surprisingly effective, convincing lawmakers from across the political spectrum to back his initiatives, including a bill that makes it easier for future independent candidates to run for office and another that stripped public officials of immunity from prosecution. “We managed to make them see that we have a new society that will no longer allow them to continue with their vertical, authoritarian models of power,” he said of his fellow lawmakers in 2016.

Kumamoto donates 70 percent of his salary to forums in his district that aim to strengthen citizen participation in politics, an issue that was central to his campaign. Grassroots organizing is part of what has made him a successful legislator: His constituents are actively engaged in promoting his legislative agenda. “I ask to my constituency to make pressure to all these congressmen and women about what we are doing,” he said in June 2016. “I ask them to tweet them and phone them. My biggest strength is not what I can do inside the local Congress; it’s what I do outside.”

While Kumamoto has developed a strong brand as a reformer nationally, making an impact on the federal stage will be difficult, says Duncan Wood, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. Kumamoto, as Wood puts it, “is riding the wave of disenchantment among the electorate with the political establishment.”

For his Senate run, Kumamoto will stand as an independent once again, and his campaign will almost certainly be unorthodox. But it’s safe to say that, this time, few will describe it as unlikely.

Paul McLeary contributed reporting to this article. Ty McCormick is Africa editor at Foreign Policy.

Kumamoto’s great-grandfather came to Mexico from Japan. He had initially planned to go to San Francisco, but when his boat landed in southern Mexico, he stayed.