Mexico City – In the days leading up to his Oct. 3 inauguration, the social media savvy new governor of Mexico’s northern Nuevo León state invited his supporters to attend celebrations with the hashtag: #NuevoLeónFregón – roughly translated as “Freaking awesome Nuevo León.”
Jaime Rodríguez, better known as “El Bronco,” who won the June gubernatorial election as an independent – unprecedented in modern Mexico – later told reporters that political parties were “jodidos” – slang for “screwed.”
After taking the oath of office on Saturday, Rodríguez read his opponents the riot act, promising clean government after six years of scandals and violence in a state once famed for industry, but of late more notorious for corruption and killings.
“I’m telling you loud and clear today: The party’s over for bandits,” Rodríguez said, forgoing the usual formalities in his inaugural remarks. “Kings have fallen, not rulers, who saw subjects where there were citizens – who saw jackpots where there was public money.”
Such salty and straight talk is vintage Rodríguez, who stoked anti-political party sentiments to win office, in spite of a playing field decidedly rigged against independent candidates. In Rodríguez's case that included a lack of access to TV and radio ads, uncertain campaign finance regulations and media coverage that was initially indifferent and later became downright hostile.
But El Bronco's style and improbable story is bringing him national and international attention and causing the chattering classes to consider him a presidential possibility in 2018.
For the moment, Rodríguez is promising to restore order in Nuevo León and investigate his predecessor, Rodrigo Medina, whose administration was rocked by scandals, deep debt and allegations of personal enrichment.
“At the ballot box a clear message was sent: Clean house,” Rodríguez told supporters on Sunday. “We’re going to do so not with a desire for revenge, but with a thirst for justice.”
Rodríguez’s anti-party rhetoric has its critics, who point to his only going independent in 2014 after 30 years as a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for decades and returned to power with the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012. PRI leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones pointed out to the newspaper Reforma, “The PRI has turned into the No. 1 provider of independent candidates in the country.”
Some analysts see his origins in party politics and past willingness to work within the system as a sign that he won't significantly upset the established political order – unlike outsiders pursuing power in other countries, like Donald Trump.
“He might put [Medina] in jail. That still may happen, but that’s not the same thing as being a threat to the elites or to the structure,” Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, told Fox News Latino. “That’s what you want in independents. You don’t really want Trumps.”
But El Bronco’s emergence has caused concern in the country’s political class to the point that eight states have approved “anti-Bronco” laws that make it harder for independents to run for office.
Of all the issues afflicting Mexico – crime, corruption and a plunging peso, to name three – the increasingly unpopular Peña Nieto used both his annual state of the nation address on Sept. 2 and his speech to the General Assembly at the United Nations nearly a month later to warn of the problem of surging “populism” – a message presumably aimed at the likes of Trump, El Bronco and two-time Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who leads in some early polls.
Polling firm Parametría gives Rodríguez the best effective opinion rating (the difference between positive and negative perceptions) of 21 possible presidential candidates, while he rated No.8 in national name recognition.
“El Bronco connects with a society that hungers for fresh politicians offering them blue skies," columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote in the newspaper El Financiero. “The day-to-day administration will be left to experienced and connected politicians … He will be in the streets, talking to people, saying naughty words and, though he won't say it, starting his presidential campaign.”
El Bronco credits his success more to social media than to the street. He calls himself a Facebook “addict” and says that he wakes at 5 a.m. to respond to WhatsApp messages personally. His Facebook page has more than 900,000 followers in a state of 4.6 million people.
He even credits Facebook with helping him beat back Los Zetas – the cartel that tried to kill him twice – while mayor of García, northwest of the Nuevo León capital, Monterrey.
"I defeated the Zetas using Facebook," he said, according to Mexico's Excelsior newspaper. "By asking people [over Facebook] who sold drugs, who was doing harm in the neighborhoods, and the people tell you. Then you, with authority take control and you resolve the situation."
Social media also helped him overcome an absence of television coverage about his electoral campaign – previously considered critical for winning office in a country where more people own TV than refrigerators.
Jesús Cantú Escalante, director of the school of government at the prestigious Monterrey Technological Institute, told FNL, “This is the first election in which a candidate beat Televisa,” the country’s biggest broadcaster, which has had politicians seeking out its good graces for decades.
El Bronco promises to spend the state advertising budget on other social programs instead of TV ads, which governments at all levels in Mexico air incessantly.
“We’re not going to spend a single peso on television,” Rodríguez said. “We’re not going to invest the population’s money to generate idolatry and arrogance in those that govern.”
It’s an unconventional approach for an unconventional politician, who plays up his rural roots and ranching background – to the point that he organized a post-inauguration horse parade through the state's largest city, Monterrey.
Rodríguez was one of 10 children born on a ranch without electricity, and he claims he didn’t watch TV until he was 15. He was trained as an engineer, rose through the PRI ranks, led farming groups, ranched and grew alfalfa.
He became mayor of García in 2009 as insecurity was increasing in Nuevo León. He lost a son during a kidnapping attempt – the inspiration, he says, for his wanting to radically overhaul Mexico. He survived two assassination attempts in which Los Zetas pumped more than 2,500 rounds into his SUV.
Crime has calmed in Nuevo León since then, but corruption cases caused outrage to the point that a non-governmental group last year started “Corruptour,” a guided tour of local sites notorious for graft and misdeeds – such as the DMV, where 300,000 license plates disappeared as auto thefts soared, and the Casino Royale, where a fire set by Los Zetas killed 52 employees and patrons.
Analysts, including Cantú, express skepticism that Rodríguez can prosecute his predecessor Medina and his family, who are friendly with Peña Nieto.
“The business class will want him to punish the Medinas, but not one of their own,” Cantú said. “This is part of the conflict, because they were accomplices in this.”
Others say El Bronco is the product of societal changes in the state, where politics is more participative than most places in Mexico and the population is much more connected to the Internet – and able to access more diverse sources of information.
“He represents a new relationship between government and society,” Arturo Franco, an author and economist, who returned from London to participate in El Bronco’s transition team, told FNL. “El Bronco exists in this state because civil society has been awake for so many years … People were ready for this.”
Expectations are high, leading some to compare El Bronco’s arrival with that of former President Vicente Fox – the National Action Party (PAN) politician whose 2000 election broke the PRI's 71-year hold on the office, and whose cowboy shtick, colorful language and agenda of change brought high expectations, but ended in disappointment.
“[El Bronco] doesn’t have to do great things” to be considered successful, Gerardo Priego Tapia, a former lawmaker with the National Action Party, told FNL. “He only has to be a good governor.”