06 February 2009

Tomato King, R.I.P.

Cancer claims politician known as 'Tomato King'

The News

Andrés Bermúdez Viramontes, a federal deputy from Zacatecas and millionaire inventor best known as the "Tomato King," died of cancer Thursday at age 58.

The Chamber of Deputies honored the Tomato King with the lusty shout, "Tiempo!" ("time"), a tribute to one of the country's less sophisticated politicians who was known for hollering during legislative sessions, refusing to remove his cowboy hat and picking his nose in public.

"This singular person from our legislature generated a memory in each and every one of us," Chamber of Deputies Speaker César Duarte said.

The Tomato King created many memories during nearly a decade in Mexican politics, perhaps nowhere more so than in Zacatecas and his hometown of Jerez, a tidy burg in the central highlands.


In the mid-1970s, Bermúdez left his hometown of Jerez with his pregnant wife and stole across the U.S. border in the trunk of a car. Bermúdez soon found work in a Los Angeles suitcase factory but hated it and headed for California's fields. It was there that he would strike it rich, inventing a tomato-planting device.

He never forgot Jerez, however. He returned in 2001 and successfully ran for mayor under the banner of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. But he never took office; state electoral officials ruled that he failed to meet residency requirements.

Undeterred, Bermúdez successfully lobbied for a change in the state electoral laws. His proposal was popular in Zacatecas, which is said to have more former residents living in Los Angeles than it does Zacatecanos in the state capital.

In 2004, Bermúdez ran for mayor again, but this time with the National Action Party, or PAN. (The PRD opted against nominating him.) He won again in a victory hailed by many political observers as the beginning of a wave of migrants-made-good who would return with money and north-of-the-border sensibilities.

Bermúdez promised to turn Jerez into a little United States and "get the scoundrels out of city hall," according to some locals.

But soon, critics emerged. Some said he fell into the same vices of his predecessors. Rumors surfaced that he had traded prostitutes for votes, was packing City Hall with relatives and threatening journalists. One local politician even alleged that Bermúdez won the election by promising to sow the fields with tomatoes.

Bermúdez failed to finish his term - but of his own accord, not because of the rumors.

He successfully ran for the Chamber of Deputies, where he quickly captured attention for his attire - as a tribute to a deceased relative, he always wore black cowboy clothing, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and thick gold chains - and colorful outbursts.

In one particularly sarcastic bite, he promised to take skeptics of the legitimacy of the 2006 election outcome to Disneyland "so that they can fulfill their dreams and declare Andrés Ma- nuel López Obrador or Mickey Mouse president ... whoever they want."

The Tomato King - he never abandoned the handle, even in Congress - served as president of the Population, Border and Migration Matters Committee, but was never fully embraced by the PAN. His candor and off-the-cuff style made him a liability in the eyes of some party officials.

But the clothing, comments and uncouth gestures were all what helped make the Tomato King an unforgettable figure.

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