Among the nine gubernatorial races that will take place alongside the national congressional midterms, no candidate has garnered more press, both within Mexico and internationally, than Jaime Rodríguez, who hopes to become the next governor of Nuevo León.
The state is one of the two largest prizes — Nuevo León, home to 5 million Mexicans, and Michoacán, home to 4.6 million Mexicans. Both contests are locked in tight too-close-to-call three-way races. Violence-plagued Guerrero, too, will elect a new governor.
But Rodríguez (pictured above), known affectionately by supporters as ‘El Bronco,’ could become, under electoral reforms implemented last year, the first independent governor in Mexican history. A successful northern businessman with a populist, maverick streak and a penchant to be photographed in cowboy boots, a cowboy hat or riding a horse, there’s no doubt that Rodríguez is borrowing heavily from the political playbook of Vicente Fox. Fox, running under the banner of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), won the governorship of Guanajuato in 1995, then the national presidency just five years later, breaking the 71-year ruling stream of the powerful Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).
Twelve years later, Fox (and his PAN successor, Felipe Calderón) is out of power, the PRI once again controls the presidency under Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI hopes to extend its narrow hold on the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the 500-member lower house of the Mexican legislature. Amid a sluggish economy, a disappointing record of reform and violence and corruption, many Mexicans won’t even bother to turn out.
Rodríguez hopes to take advantage of that apathy by embodying a new force in Mexican politics — a governor tied to none of the major parties, all of which have failed the Mexican electorate to some degree in the past 15 years. A member of the PRI for three decades (until last year) and a former mayor of García, a suburb of Monterrey, the state’s capital, Rodríguez is now running against the PRI, which has controlled the state’s government for decades (with the exception of a PAN government between 1997 and 2003).
Like all too many officials in Mexican government, the current governor, Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz, is tainted by corruption allegations. The PRI candidate, Ivonne Álvarez, has been forced to distance herself from the incumbent. Felipe de Jesús Cantú, a 49-year-old rising star and a maverick who served briefly as Monterey mayor from 2000 to 2003, is the PAN candidate.
One potential rival, Fernando Elizondo, a former PAN senator and, briefly, interim governor in 2003, who was also running under the banner of a new leftist party, Movimiento Ciudadano, quit the race in Rodríguez’s favor.
The race remains too close to call, and the PRI’s Álvarez will benefit from a deep network of local and state patronage, despite the general distaste for PRI-led government in both Nuevo León and nationally. It would be no surprise to see the PRI triumph in the state on June 7. A Rodríguez victory, however, would begin a bold experiment in Mexican politics. If he wins, he might just be another flash-in-the-pan populist with few tools to combat an intractable problem of international dimensions — it will take more than the huevos that Rodríguez brags about on the campaign trail, and Rodríguez would have to locate support within the state legislature to enact any major changes. Though he has campaigned as a non-ideologue and an independent, and though he has a compelling personal story (he was targeted twice for assassination by drug cartels whose son was killed at age 22 during an attempted kidnapping), Rodríguez has nevertheless offered up few policy specifics.
But if he is even remotely successful in breaking the cycle of drug trafficking, violent crime and corruption that’s plagued many regions of Mexico, it could unleash a wave of independent candidates or even propel Rodríguez into contention for the presidency in 2018 or 2024.
Nuevo León, which lies near the country’s northeastern border with the United States, is the economic powerhouse of industrial northern Mexico and, with the exception of the federal district, has the highest GDP per capita of any Mexican state. Like many areas in northern Mexico, Nuevo León has suffered from violent conflicts between two rival drug gangs, the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, including in Monterrey, northern Mexico’s industrial capital and its third-largest city.