When Raul Mondesi left baseball after 13 seasons as a major league outfielder, he returned to his dusty, overcrowded and impoverished hometown determined to make a difference.
And both of the Dominican Republic’s main political parties were only too happy to assist, with one helping him twice win election to the country’s national Chamber of Deputies and another luring him away to run for mayor of the country’s sixth-largest city.
That’s made the former Dodger and 1994 National League Rookie of the Year something of a rising electoral star here, though for reasons that have little to do with his politics. Instead, party leaders were drawn by Mondesi’s fame and fortune, resources that are far more useful.
That’s a growing trend here in the Dominican Republic, where nearly 100 entertainers and sports figures -- including another former Dodger, Juan Encarnacion, fellow ex-big-leaguers Melido Perez and Jose Rijo, and merenguero Sergio Vargas -- ran for a variety of national and local offices in the November primaries.
And here’s the plus for both the parties and their nominees: The candidates aren’t required to actually articulate, or even understand, the issues. All they have to do is vote the party line once elected.
“Retired ballplayers are very useful. And being that baseball is the king of Dominican sports, they use them a lot,” said Americo Celado, a columnist for the Dominican website Clave Digital. “But never thinking they can work for the good, submitting project after project in the Congress that will benefit society. Basically, it’s to take advantage of their popularity.”
Name recognition, after all, is huge in a country where 33% of the population doesn’t finish eighth grade, and nearly two-thirds of people don’t graduate from high school.
“Artists and baseball players have a better chance of getting elected because of their fame. And their money,” Celado said. “That’s what [the political parties] use them for.
“They don’t present ideas, such as political platforms, in the event they win office. They base their campaigns more on their stature as an athlete.”
There’s nothing illegal about that. In fact, it echoes certain aspects of U.S. politics: Parties can nominate and voters can elect whomever they wish. And for the athletes and entertainers, many of whom struggle adjusting to life away from the spotlight, politics can be as big a boost to their egos as their previous jobs were.
Nor is the Dominican Republic the only Latin American country where success in sports or the arts has served as a springboard into politics. Author Mario Vargas Llosa formed a political party in Peru, where he was the runner-up for president in 1990. And singer Ruben Blades was named minister of tourism in Panama in 2004, a decade after his own failed run for president.
But both Vargas Llosa and Blades were noted intellectuals with a long history of political involvement before running for office. Mondesi, on the other hand, had done some charity work in San Cristobal but had hardly distinguished himself.
“His intellectual shortcomings are obvious,” one political observer notes. “We don’t know of one project that Raul Mondesi has submitted.”
First elected in 2006 to the Chamber of Deputies -- the Dominican equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives -- as a member of President Leonel Fernandez’s Dominican Liberation Party, or PLD, Mondesi jumped to the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party, or PRD, during his second term.
The PRD rewarded that decision by backing his campaign for mayor of San Cristobal, surrounding him with a cabal of lawyers and professionals who arrived for a campaign meeting at Mondesi’s nightclub and car wash recently wearing crisp white polo shirts with the candidate’s name on them. Mondesi, looking as trim and fit as he did during three consecutive 30-home-run seasons with the Dodgers a decade ago, arrived nearly an hour later in a glistening white Mercedes S600, wearing a button-up shirt and a fishing hat and wanting to talk about alleviating poverty.
“Most of the people, they don’t have anything,” said Mondesi, who grew up in crushing circumstances just a few miles away. “I know what they need, how they feel.”
Asked for specifics, however, and the closest he comes to a campaign pledge is repeating a desire to build a basketball court in every neighborhood.
“The first thing,” said Mondesi, who didn’t study beyond grade school, “is to try to show the young people how to play sports.”
His advisors quickly jump in, talking up plans to increase tourism, protect the environment and exploit the area’s large free-trade zone -- subjects that Mondesi appears to have little grasp of.
The PRD, which reportedly spent more than $1 million nationally on last month’s elections, did not hold a popular vote in San Cristobal, leaving the race between Mondesi and next-door neighbor Rijo, a former World Series MVP, to be decided by party leaders.
The winner, who will represent the PRD in May’s midterm elections, is largely expected to be Mondesi, partly as a reward for jumping parties.
Rijo, a former executive with the Washington Nationals, didn’t formally enter politics until this year after he, along with General Manager Jim Bowden, was forced out by the Nationals over irregularities in the team’s Dominican operation.
Rijo and Mondesi, who combined made more than $100 million in their baseball careers, live on the edge of town in neighboring mansions, surrounded by 8-foot-high walls topped with concertina wire and protected by armed guards. And that’s not all they have in common. Three years ago, they were both hit with heavy fines for rigging illegal connections to their homes that allowed them to use electricity without paying for it.
Their campaigns, however, have been markedly different in style, if not substance. Shortly after Rijo threw his ball cap into the ring last summer, he began going door to door in San Cristobal’s many poor neighborhoods; Mondesi leaned more toward large, planned gatherings.
On the competing billboards that have sprung up across the city, Mondesi is pictured stern-faced, in a suit and tie, in front of a PRD logo. Meanwhile, a smiling Rijo is shown in an open-collared golf shirt above the slogan: “Jose Rijo, your big-league mayor.”
“You have to show the people the way you’re going to be, taking things serious,” Mondesi said.
Rijo did not respond to several requests to discuss his campaign.
For some voters, there’s little difference between the two.
“I can’t say anything in favor of any of them. Us, the poor, we’re up to our neck with politicians. They’re all bad,” San Cristobal resident Bienvenido Guerrero said.
“They don’t do anything. They just fill their wallets,” he said. “They’re just continuing the game, passing to a political ballgame. When the elections are coming, they give you a hug, shake your hand. But then. . . . " Guerrero turned his palms up and shrugged.
Several blocks away, at his nightclub next to the contaminated Nigua River, Mondesi nodded his head in partial agreement.
“Most of them, they want to win to get money,” he conceded. “To me it’s different, because money is not the first thought. You can see there’s a lot of poor people around here. That’s why I want to help. Because I know how it feels.”
That has hardly motivated the electorate, however. Asked whom he would vote for, Angels pitcher Ervin Santana, who spends the winters in San Cristobal, refused to say.
“I’m not a politician,” he said, pleading ignorance.
Well, not yet anyway.