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Mexican Governor Candidate Flaunts Eccentricities

In the Mexican border state of Baja California, Sunday's election for governor may represent a chance for a comeback for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.

The party ruled Mexico for 70 years, but Baja California was the first state to shrug off PRI control 18 years ago. Now Tijuana's former mayor, the flamboyant billionaire and gambling magnate Jorge Hank Rhon, is the PRI candidate.

Hank Rhon is a man with a bad reputation. He's been tied to drug trafficking, money laundering and even the assassination of a local journalist. He has 20,000 exotic animals and 19 children from three wives and a girlfriend.

Hank Rhon shrugs off the criminal allegations, but he embraces his eccentricities.

A little after 9 on one recent morning, Hank Rhon shares his special blend of tequila on his souped-up campaign bus.

"I put in three different penises — one of a lion, one of a tiger, one of a dog," he says, adding it also has, "... deer horns. It's got eight scorpions. It's got bear bile, a lion bone and it's got three cobras."

But Hank Rhon is much more thorough and forthright about the ingredients of his tequila than he is about the details of his political agenda. He says he wants to be governor so he can help the rich and the poor. He promises to end the drug war that raged out of control in Tijuana during his term, but he's short on how.

Hank Rhon comes from a long political legacy in Mexico. His father was an old-time PRI member who amassed a fortune during his political career and famously said, "A politician who is poor is a poor politician."

Arriving in one of the border city's poorest neighborhoods, Hank Rhon is greeted by a sea of supporters wearing his signature color — red.

Hank Rhon steps down from the campaign bus wearing a red crocodile skin and towering over almost everyone. Women push their grinning little girls forward for a kiss.

Esperanza Martinez says Hank Rhon gave her cement to pave her dirt floor when he was mayor. She says everything he promises, he'll do. He already has everything, so he won't be tempted like other politicians to steal, she says.

The candidate has a strong allure in many Tijuana neighborhoods, says David Shirk of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. Hank Rhon drives a $100,000 dollar car. He lives "la vida loca" and can afford to throw barbecues for entire neighborhoods.

"Hank's like the new iPhone, right. I mean, he's successfully marketed a brand for himself that is very popular among voters, and it may have very little to do with what he actually represents," Shirk says.

When Hank Rhon was elected mayor three years ago, he promised his hand would not tremble in the face of crime. During Hank Rhon's term, crime soared. There was a murder a day, and spectacular shootouts between warring drug cartels raged in city streets.

Hank Rhon claims he lacked the power as mayor to fight that kind of crime. As governor, Hank Rhon says he'll finally be in a position to crack down.

Hank Rhon's opponent, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, is charged with defending the PAN's 18-year legacy in Baja, which many look to as a political bellwether.

If Osuna Millan's party loses and Hank Rhon's wins, the PRI will have reclaimed control of all of Mexico's border states. Polls place the two candidates neck-and-neck.

Throughout his campaign, Osuna Millan has pounded on the issues of security, education and infrastructure. He and his party have tried to portray Hank Rhon as an evil Mafioso who is buying the election.

In a television ad produced by the PAN, an actor pretends to be Hank Rhon in a world where everything is for sale, then the ad challenges voters not to let themselves be bought.

Hank Rhon does admit to one major election-related purchase. He's so confident he is going win, he recently bought and demolished a landmark Chinese restaurant in Baja California's capital to make way for his new governor's mansion.

Isackson reports for member station KPBS in San Diego.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Amy Isackson