YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

'Tomato King' Has a Few Hurled at Him

After finding success in California, he's drawing fire as mayor of his hometown in Mexico.

January 18, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

JEREZ, Mexico — The TV news crew set up quickly and was ready to roll when the "Tomato King" raised a big and calloused hand.

Wait, he ordered. Everybody froze.

An aide arrived a minute later clutching a black cowboy hat.

"It's what gives a man character," the Tomato King said as he set the hat snug on his head; with another wave the mayor signaled he was ready.

Back when he was running for office, Andres Bermudez's campaign team conjured up the title to better package the portly, middle-aged emigre who'd spent the last three decades farming in California. But critics complain he's taking the nickname a bit too literally.

Fifteen months after Mexico's famous prodigal son moved from Yolo County to run Jerez, local newspapers rail against him, calling him autocratic and referring to him as El Tomaton, the Big Tomato. Shoppers downtown say he's done nothing. A taxi driver summed up his problem with the mayor this way: He's pigheaded.

The list of accusations is long and unproven: extravagance, arrogance, nepotism, cronyism, misuse of public funds, even sexual assault. Bermudez denies any wrongdoing and calls the charges libel and slander. One of his allies says the opposition is driven by prejudice among well-heeled locals against a poor boy who moved to America, prospered over time and eventually became a landowner and commercial farmer.

It all leaves Bermudez wondering why he ever bothered to come back to Zacatecas, the only Mexican state where expatriates are eligible to run for office.

He left a 600-acre farm, a big house and a swimming pool for this?

"Some of the people don't like they way I do things," Bermudez said with wide-eyed sarcasm.

For one, critics say, he holds municipal dinners and luncheons at his brother's restaurant instead of spreading the money around. They say his gasoline, cellphone and travel bills are too high. And because he controls 12 votes on the 20-member council, what he says goes.

Even supporters acknowledge that Bermudez doesn't always follow the rules.

"Most of the complaints have to do with spending," said Vicente Marquez, who signs the checks at City Hall. "Some were costs that needed approval. He spent the money and then got approval."

Marquez's family is split over the mayor. His sister, Councilwoman Adriana Marquez Sanchez, is a leader of the anti-Bermudez faction. Last month, she and another council member went on a hunger strike against him, a protest that devolved into a weekend takeover of City Hall by a group of anti-Bermudez demonstrators.

"The 'Tomato King' is a myth," she said. "He promised to make Jerez a progressive city.... He said he came to do big projects. Ask anyone -- what projects? What new businesses? Not one."

Bermudez, who says opponents won't let him do his job, isn't quite ready to throw in the towel. His three-year term ends in September 2007. Reelection isn't allowed in Mexico, so this is his only chance to show that an emigrant can return and change his hometown for the better.

"Right now, I'm the first. After this, lots of people will come back," he said. "I put a seed in the ground and I want to see what comes up. I have to do it for my people in Jerez, for the United States and for Mexico."

Many are rooting for him. His brusque, unpolished style marks Bermudez as a campesino, a man of the fields, say the retirees in cowboy hats who lounge on benches in the town square. "The rich don't like him," Trinidad Vega, 77, said.

Farmers and ranchers here respect a man who has made his fortune from the soil, especially because the beans, corn and chiles grown around here provide only the slimmest living.

At the demonstration last month, fervent Bermudez supporters tossed out the protesters who had seized City Hall and took it back by force. Riot police stood by, apparently unsure which side to take.

When the doors were finally pried open with a crowbar, Bermudez led his entourage inside, a procession broadcast nationwide. At his desk, mobbed by well-wishers and media, he broke down sobbing.

"Why won't they leave me in peace?" he told TV Jerez, whose reporter, apparently in keeping with the day's circus atmosphere, was dressed like a clown, with greasepaint, a porkpie hat and sunglasses. "Why can't a campesino govern?"

Bermudez brags about the cement, sheet metal roofs and backpacks he's given to the needy, as well as the newly paved roads. He's started free bus service for students to attend the university in Zacatecas, an hour away.

But some campaign promises, such as creating hundreds of jobs, have gone unfulfilled. Governing, it turns out, is a lot harder than growing tomatoes.

"It might not be the best way he's using to change Jerez, but it's one way," said Raymundo Carrillo, an unpaid advisor who's acted as Bermudez's Karl Rove since 2000. "The people here who don't like him have never emigrated."

Los Angeles Times Articles