Watch CBS News

U.S.-Italian national Elly Schlein, who campaigned for Obama, becomes 1st woman to lead Italy's Democratic Party

Elly Schlein, a 37-year-old U.S.-Italian dual national who proved her mettle in two U.S. presidential campaigns, has become the first woman to head Italy's second biggest party, the center-left Democratic party, making her Italy's de-facto political opposition leader.  Schlein, also the youngest ever to lead the party, is not only a now-accomplished Italian politician, but a veteran of two American presidential campaigns.    

Italy Politics
FILE: Italian Democratic Party, PD, lawmaker Elly Schlein listens to questions during a press conference she held at the Foreign Press association headquarters, in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Andrew Medichini / AP

In a surprise primary vote win Sunday night, Schlein, whose mother is Italian and father is American, beat opponent Stefano Bonaccini with 54% to his 46% of the vote.

She cut her political teeth working on two of former U.S. President Barack Obama's presidential campaigns.

Bonaccini, the more experienced governor of the Emilia Romagna region, was the preferred candidate among many of the party's longtime leaders, and he had been leading in the polls ahead of the weekend vote.

Schlein's win has been attributed to strong support from women and young people, who favored her progressive agenda — and her vow to stiffen her party's response to the rise to power of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose right-wing coalition came to power late last year after general elections in September 2022.  

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni wins majority 02:36

In a first for Italy, both the prime minister and the opposition leader are now women — albeit from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

In her acceptance speech in Rome, Schlein immediately threw the gauntlet down in front of Meloni, vowing to be "a big problem" for her ruling coalition. She pledged to help defend the poor, public schools and public health.  

"I received a mandate to change people, methods and vision," she said. "We will put the battle against every type of inequality and precariousness center-stage."

Schlein specifically critized Meloni's anti-migration policies, saying the deadly Sunday wreck of a boat carrying scores of migrants off Italy's southern coast should weigh heavy "on the conscience of those who, only weeks ago, approved a decree whose only goal is to hinder rescues at sea."     

Shipwreck kills dozens of migrants off Italian coast 01:57

Meloni's government has restricted the work of charity ships that work to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.  

Schlein has advocated for more humanitarian search and rescue missions, and to make it easier for migrants to enter the EU.

Meloni is a staunch traditionalist who supports Catholic teachings on issues like gender and abortion. 

In her speech, Schlein, who is in a relationship with a woman, said: "I am a woman.  I am not a mother, but this doesn't make me less of a woman." 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.