The gambling tycoon had just breezed through another campaign stump speech when the poor farmers and mothers of a sweltering desert pueblo surged toward him trying to press pieces of crumpled paper into his hand.
They are letters begging for help from Jorge Hank Rhon, the Tijuana multimillionaire running for governor of Baja California state. One woman requests a wheelchair for her disabled father. Another needs treatment for a tumor. “Give me justice, Mr. Hank,” writes a man who says he was beaten by police.
They know that the candidate dispenses thousands of gifts and favors. Maybe he can provide for their harsh, sun-baked land of broken tractors and fallen fences on the fringes of the state capital, Mexicali.
“Even God has forgotten us,” farmer Miguel Garcia Garcia said.
Such scenes of poor people thronging the candidate inspire the red-shirted supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, into rhythmic chants of “Hank! Hank! Hank!”
But they send his opponents, who see their lead shrinking, into head-shaking fits of dread.
They say Hank is more Don Corleone than Santa Claus. They say the shower of gifts is a cynical act of political seduction blinding the poor to his past: How his chief of security in 1988 was found guilty of murder in the slaying of a crusading Tijuana journalist. How U.S. authorities once investigated him for alleged links to organized crime.
They blame Hank, the former mayor of Tijuana, for the high kidnapping rate that has caused an exodus of upper- and middle-class residents.
Manuel Espino, leader of the long-ruling National Action Party, or PAN, alleged that if Hank wins today’s election, it will open the door for criminals and organized crime.
“He represents a danger not only for Baja California, but for all of Mexico,” Espino said during a recent visit to Tijuana.
Hank brushes off the attacks in a gentle baritone that rarely rises above a father-knows-best tone. Dogged by reporters for years, he has always denied any links to criminality. And his charity work, which started long before he became a politician, is not a way to buy votes, he insists.
“I enjoy being able to give happiness and to give the opportunity to people,” Hank said in slightly accented English.
Still, this famously eccentric businessman can’t help attracting controversial headlines.
He offers reporters drinks of his favorite tequila, custom-brewed by a Chinese-Mexican restaurateur and fermented with rattlesnake hides and penises of lions and tigers, which the father of 19 swears makes him virile.
On a recent swing through the Valle de Mexicali, Hank took the wheel of a van carrying 14 volunteers and screeched around tight turns, ran stop signs and blew through red lights. In the rush to keep up, one volunteer almost slammed the door on a woman trying to give Hank a letter.
Hank, 51, is PRI royalty, the son of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, an early party stalwart and former governor of the state of Mexico and Mexico City mayor who amassed a billion-dollar fortune and, according to legend, coined the phrase, “A politician who is poor is a poor politician.”
The younger Hank moved to Tijuana in 1985 to run the historic Agua Caliente track, which features dog races. The enormous grandstand is the showcase property in an empire that includes shopping centers, hotels and off-track betting parlors.
Hank, who inherited half his father’s wealth, estimates his worth has doubled to $1 billion in the last three years.
To many, he appears to spend every penny of it.
This year he flew in superstar singers Julio Iglesias and Luis Miguel to entertain at personal parties. He owns about 30 cars and a house in Vail, Colo. Three times a year, he throws open the doors at the racetrack for gift-giving extravaganzas. On Mother’s Day, thousands of women cart home stoves, refrigerators and other appliances.
Behind his home he keeps an enormous private zoo. It has bears and lions, kangaroos and ostriches, and three rare white tigers. The zoo, which has 20,000 animals, isn’t that impressive, Hank says. “Any sultan or guy in Africa has a zoo,” he once said.
Three years ago, Hank ran for mayor of Tijuana. Many experts didn’t think he could prevail given his past controversies, but the opposition ran a mostly positive campaign. He won. This time around, the PAN candidate, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, also a former mayor of Tijuana, has taken the gloves off.
At stake is control of the upper half of the Baja peninsula, a booming region of maquiladora plants, coastal resorts and sprawling cities that is plagued by drug cartels and a creaky infrastructure overburdened by its fast-growing population of 2.8 million.
Crime has emerged as the biggest issue of the election, with each side blaming the other for the homicide and drug addiction rates, some of the highest in Mexico.
Osuna Millan, in debates and television ads, mocks Hank’s campaign slogans from three years ago. “Hank said he would make criminals tremble with fear. Instead he’s left all of Tijuana trembling with fear.”
The heated campaign rhetoric has spilled onto the streets. Supporters of the two candidates clashed outside a debate last month, throwing rocks and leaving several people injured. The PAN-controlled state police has raided warehouses looking for evidence that the PRI is showering neighborhoods with gifts of city-owned property.
At one raid, the Tijuana municipal police, controlled by the PRI, blocked state police outside a suspected hide-out, triggering a tense standoff.
The negative campaigning, Hank supporters says, shows Osuna Millan’s desperation as his lead in polls narrows. Hank, meanwhile, has stuck to his strengths, touring poor neighborhoods with promises of safe communities, mandatory English-language instruction in schools and more paved roads.
A natural campaigner with a folksy touch, Hank hammers away at PAN, which has ruled Baja California for 18 years, saying it has only succeeded in making the state tops in crime.
Long before he was a politician, Hank built a reputation as a philanthropist. Almost every day, people line up outside his office at the racetrack, which doubles as a social services center of sorts. Staffers with medical, financial and legal expertise evaluate requests for help gathered on the campaign trail and from people who show up at the track.
The philanthropist image takes flight on the campaign trail. In a comic book distributed to children at events, Hank is depicted as a caped superhero, Hombre H., a fearless crime fighter and protector of the poor. The character, his supporters say, is just an extension of Hank’s larger-than-life personality.
“A legend around Hank has grown over the years,” said Francisco Ramirez, Hank’s longtime spokesman. “The community believes he cares for them.”
Some aren’t convinced. Hank’s proposed solutions to Baja California’s crime and growth problems are simplistic, they say, and he talks down to people, as though they were children. Many women say they would never support a man once quoted as saying that women were his favorite animals. (Aren’t we all animals? Hank said in explanation.) Many critics consider him a frivolous politician who spends too much time and public funds on elaborate parties and parades. And they say gauging Hank’s support by the size of the crowds at his events enjoying free beer and food is misleading.
Still, Hank’s campaign bus has lumbered through many pueblos and urban shantytowns where residents feel neglected by the PAN. Sure, a cloud of suspicion hangs over Hank’s head, some residents say, but as long as he follows through on his promises, the past isn’t relevant.
“We’re migrant workers and farmers out here,” said Garcia Garcia, the leader of Colonias Nuevas outside Mexicali. “Hank looks like a sensible, honest politician who can help us. That’s all we care about.”
Carlos Martinez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.