By Raïssa Robles
When former President Corazon Aquino died three years ago, a grief-stricken Jesse Robredo wrote in his blog:
Bakit nga naman ngayon na muling nababalot sa krisis ang Pilipinas lumisan na siya? Hindi pa tapos ang laban ni Ninoy. Hindi pa tapos ang laban ni Cory.
Hindi lamang demokrasya bilang isang paraan ng pamamahala, kung hindi higit sa lahat, demokrasya na mag-aangat ng antas ng buhay ng ordinaryong Pilipino.
Rather than despair, Robredo drew courage from her death:
Dahil sa pagpanaw ni Pangulong Cory muling matatagpuan natin sa ating mga sarili ang pagmamahal sa bayan, ang manindigan para sa matuwid at ang paggamit ng ating mga kapangyarihan para mabago na ang kalakaran sa ating lipunan. Ito lang ang tanging paraan para magkaroon ng saysay ang ating pagdalamhati, ang pagkamatay ni Ninoy at pagpanaw ni Cory.
Ituloy ang laban ni Ninoy at Cory!
His blog entry was dated August 16, 2009 – or three years before his own death on August 18, 2012.
It was Robredo’s last entry in his blog which he had named “Oddball”, perhaps to describe himself because he was an odd man out in Philippine politics. I’d like to thank a commenter named @Noggy who had pointed me to Robredo’s blog. I really appreciate it because I had been looking for it.
In more mature democracies, a politician like Robredo would not be unusual. But in the Philippines, he is indeed a rarity and an oddity.
Boy, was he odd
In the Philippines, most politicians once elected lose no time acquiring the trappings of power. Especially what I would call the two “M’s” – mansions and mistresses.
Philippine society aids and abets this practice and in fact heaps attention on such “successful” polticians. Their mansions are featured in loving detail in glossy mags. Their mistresses grace the annual best dressed list wearing high-end creations.
But Robredo was odd. Although a former San Miguel Corporation senior executive, he chose to live a middle-class existence. This was even though he could afford a higher lifestyle. His official Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) for 2011 posted on the Interaksyon blog showed he had a net worth of P9 million. Still, he casually went about the city – where he was mayor for 18 years – wearing floppies and baggy shorts sometimes. During the annual Peñafrancia festival, he would go barefoot.
At work as the powerful Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Governments, he wore short-sleeved barong and a locally-assembled watch that survived his undersea tragedy.
In more mature democracies, senior government officials riding public transport isn’t unusual. Not so in the Philippines.
Robredo believed in being thrifty when spending the people’s money. In one blog entry entitled “Luho”, he scolded the Department of Foreign Affairs officers who had pulled out the “mobile passporting” service from Naga City because they disliked the accommodations provided by the city government. He wrote –
Ang kanilang reklamo ay tinitira daw sila sa Naga City Hostel. Hindi ”5-star” ang hostel. Subali’t lahat ng kuwarto nito ay air-conditioned at may sariling banyo.
Robredo recalled that when news broke about the million-peso supper of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her entourage in the United States, he thought at once of the picky DFA personnel and wondered:
Ito na nga ba ang kalakaran sa pamahalaan ngayon? Utusan ang ordinaryong kawani magtipid. Subali’t ang mga may tungkulin at kapangyarihan ay di-sakop sa mga utos na ito. Sa gitna ng kahirapan, may karapatan pa ba tayong maging “class”?…Kawawa mga mamamayan. Hindi niya kaya ang luho ng mga naninilbihan sa kanya!
Robredo went on to write a column in Abante but these were not as frank and as personal as those entries in his blog where he expounded on his political philosophy.
He believed in trying to find common ground with those whose views he differed from. Politicians of various stripes trooped to Naga City and he welcomed them all. It is for this reason that many were grief-stricken by his death, regardless of their political bent.
Many feel a profound loss with his passing. It is perhaps the same way Robredo himself had felt over the death of Ninoy Aquino – which had pushed him out of his comfort zone and made him enter public service. Sixteen years later, the death of Cory Aquino made him carry on. On President Cory’s death, he noted that many Filipinos desired change but without working hard for it:
Marami sa ating kababayan ang nagnanais na makamtan ang pagbabago subali’t ayaw niyang makilahok. Sana sa pagpanaw ni Pangulong Cory, maantig ang ating isip at damdamin at tatanggapin natin ang hamon na sinimulan ni Ninoy, pinagpatuloy ni Cory at magiging daan para sa tagumpay ng bawat mamamayang Pilipino. Hindi lamang demokrasya bilang isang paraan ng pamamahala, kung hindi higit sa lahat, demokrasya na mag-aangat ng antas ng buhay ng ordinaryong Pilipino.
I guess that’s Jesse Robredo’s message for all those weeping over his death like me – that it’s OUR TURN to carry on.
Somehow, that makes me smile. I realize that he doesn’t need to be confirmed as DILG Secretary by the Commission on Appointments because he has shifted the burdens of that office to all of us.
And he’s right. The only thing that can make LGUs (local government units) really work and cities and towns prosper is if ordinary people continuously hold the feet of their local officials to the fire.
This also means we have to change our way of measuring the success of our government officials. For instance, no more tolerance and even admiration for politicians’ mansions and mistresses.
It’s time to adopt the Jesse Robredo standard of modest living and pro-poor thinking.
Turn the Oddball into the Norm.
Go on. Laugh your heart out, Sir. The tables have been turned.
Dear CA: Be more honest in explaining why you bypassed Robredo 3 times
salamat po sa magandang pag-alala sa aming butihing ama ng lungsod.
Kumusta yung piesta ng penafrancia sa inyo nang wala na siya?
Beautiful tribute. thank you for posting.
I am amazed how they answered the interviewer’s question. Very beautiful family.
A very wonderful article.
Jesse Robredo: ‘If I were President…’
BY MIRIAM GRACE A GO
Posted on 08/27/2012 9:09 AM | Updated 08/27/2012 5:47 PM
25 Comments and 146 Reactions
Miriam Grace Go.It was initially ironic, in the eyes of some fellow journalists, that I couldn’t immediately type away a tribute to Jesse Robredo.
I practically grew up with him professionally. He was head of the League of Cities at the time the Local Government Code was up for a first review since its enactment. I was a newspaper reporter urged by my editors to keep an eye on this sector that had started pushing for more powers, autonomy, and resources from the national government.
The coverage evolved into conversations over the years. Local governance was our common passion; good administration, both our ideal. Politics was a reality we both grappled with whenever I asked the practical, at times awkward, questions. Campaigns and elections were a most absurd necessity we often afforded to laugh about only when they were over.
Face to face, voice calls, text messages—he would answer; he had answers. Truthful. Realistic. Sometimes pragmatic. But always—always—giving you the feeling that it’s alright, even this once, to shed off a bit of your cynicism; that it’s not strange if you wrap up an interview feeling a bit hopeful for this country, or for the countryside at least.
He was pleased, I can tell you, when a journalist wanted to talk about good governance—not just in terms of vague academic concepts, but how it’s introduced to a society so used to traditional politics; how it’s funded in a perennially financially-challenged government; how it’s sustained when the dirty toes you inevitably step on would, by reflex, kick back to frustrate your efforts.
If only time permitted, he would talk endlessly. Reporters would tell you, he knew an intent student when he was talking to one. He respected an interviewer who knew what to ask. He recognized it when you really came for answers, and not just to perfunctorily get a quote.
Whenever he said, “O meron pa?” or “Okay na tayo?” it didn’t mean he was trying to cut short the interview. He was telling you, “If you have more questions, I’d be willing to answer them until I’ve helped you understand this issue.”
And how he made time. During his first term after Harvard, I remember texting him at his two numbers early in the morning to request an interview by phone. I had forgotten that a storm had just hit Bicol, and the hours that passed without any reply from him made me forget that I had even texted him. Around 9 pm, he was returning the call: “Nasa bundok kasi kami maghapon, kabababa lang, nag-check kami sa mga kababayan nating binagyo.”
Another time, in 2006, I was on a tight deadline and needed a sit-down interview with him anytime he would be in Manila. He replied late in the evening when he arrived in San Juan, where he used to sleep over at his sister’s house, and promised to squeeze me into his packed schedule the following day.
The window turned out to be at 7 am, at Greenwich at the Greenhills Shopping Center. I came 20 minutes before schedule, because I had this sense that he was the type who would arrive earlier than call time, so to speak. True enough, he came at 6:50, apologetic that he made me wait and that he set the interview perhaps too early in the day.
But he didn’t have—and I didn’t want him—to apologize. Over my convenience as a journalist, I would choose anytime to honor the man’s far nobler commitment—that of finishing his business every time he’s in Manila within as short a time as possible, so he could immediately go home to his family and his constituents in Naga.
Letting things slide
I was affected by his death, my friends realized, as we sat in the conference room last Friday and the rest of the newsroom was busy with updates on his wake in Malacañang. Quickly, one’s “DILG Queen, bakit di ka nagsusulat?” changed to “Wala na ang tatay mo…” (We often referred to close and regular sources in terms of family members.)
“Umiyak ka ba, Miss Gigi?” asked another. I did, as soon as I knew from the initial details of the crash that only a miracle would render him alive.
The next day, while I still hoped for a miracle for Mayor Jesse (I never got to progress to calling him “Secretary”), my prayers already focused on his family. This was a family that was raised to be unaffected by the trappings of influence and power, shielded from material comfort and bragging rights that connection to city hall could’ve afforded them. I thought, we were only missing a good public servant; Attorney Leni, Aika, Patricia, and Jillian were losing their devoted family man.
By Monday night, the 20th, my prayer was for his body to at least be recovered—that would be a big help in the family’s healing. In the morning of Tuesday, I got a text message that his remains were found. I felt numb, took hours to tweet a prayer for the family, and decided to shut out any more news for the day.
I was afraid I’d come across some politicians who would tell us what a big loss Mayor Jesse’s death would be to our quest for good and transparent governance. They who made themselves scarce when he needed firm and unequivocal support to automatically bag the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) appointment, be confirmed right away, and get to exercise full authority over the entire department and its attached agencies.
Or I might see some local officials extolling him for Naga’s best practices that could be widely replicated across the country. They who, instead of instinctively and collectively welcoming the first time a former local official would be at the helm of the DILG, were telling journalists without attribution, “Ano ba naman ’yung Naga, eh maliit lang ’yun?”
Or I might sense the hand of some political tacticians shoving their clients closer so they could be deodorized by any association with Mayor Jesse. They who used to brand him haughty every time he said honest and efficient management of public affairs was possible if the leader really wanted it.
Or I might hear some folks saying he would’ve been the best president or senator we could have had. They who, I’m sure, mostly didn’t appreciate what he was doing, because the last time his name was floated in surveys, only 0.8% intended to vote him to the Senate.
Then I would’ve turned into the nasty version of myself toward these bandwagoners. And Mayor Jesse—I could imagine if I brought up such issues in our conversations—would’ve chuckled to say, “I get your point,” acknowledged that some of my observations were valid, and gone on to try to make me broaden my perspective.
He would say, there are things you let slide or learn to live with, as long as your core principles remain intact, because there are things you had set out to accomplish.
One car, by installment
But, tell me, Mayor Jesse, did you really think most of these pampered politicians understood “modest” when they expressed admiration for your family’s way of life?
The Robredos have lived in a sort of a townhouse, without a lawn or hall for people’s day gatherings that’s staple in local politicians’ residences. (To keep people from lining up outside his house for various concerns, Mayor Jesse would have early breakfast and head for city hall before office hours.)
They didn’t have many cars; in fact, they only had one at a time, at least before he became a Cabinet member. I remember him proudly recounting years ago how he sold his old car so he could get a Mercedes van that’s big enough for the whole family—he was paying for it by installment over 5 years.
Before the era of budget airfares, he rarely traveled to Manila by plane, even if he was on official business—he didn’t want to strain the city government’s budget, so he preferred to travel by land.
On the day his plane crashed and his two older daughters were rushing home to Naga to be with their mother and youngest sister, I realized nothing had changed. The girls were taking the bus from Manila and were expected to arrive at the province by 4 am the following day yet.
“Hindi tayo makakapagsalita para sa iba, ayaw nating magkumpara,” I could almost predict Mayor Jesse would say. And then he would tell you he’s just raising his family the way his parents did—no sense of entitlement, enjoying only what you worked hard for, making a difference wherever you find yourself in, giving back because life has been good to you.
Okay, sir, but we both know that the politics of these so-called allies are not as straight as yours, right?
And Mayor Jesse would say: Maybe, but by standing by your principles, you would’ve earned their respect, and they wouldn’t attempt to ask you to compromise.
In 1998, a presidential election year, I snuck into a closed-door meeting of Lakas, where they appealed to local candidates not to junk standard-bearer Joe de Venecia (JDV). The politicians were called to a room, by region, and were given big envelopes. Mayor Jesse was among the first, if not the first, to leave the place.
What did you get in the envelope? I asked him the following day. Posters, campaign paraphernalia for distribution, he said. Uh-oh, the other politicians got campaign funds—some even complaining how one got more than the others. And there went the newsroom joke, “Nabukulan si Robredo.”
He didn’t mind. Maybe he expected it. Early on in the campaign, he made clear to party officials that, being Bicolano—and, I’m sure, because he subscribed to the same brand of politics—he was going to support the presidential bid of Raul Roco, De Venecia’s opponent.
The arrangement he proposed, because he still officially belonged to Lakas, was that, even if he wouldn’t endorse JDV, he would make all the necessary preparations for the sorties that the Lakas candidates planned in his area.
If he were any other party member, I was pretty sure the Lakas leadership would’ve subjected him to disciplinary action. But then, this was somebody whom they never caught saying one thing and doing another, so they let him be.
‘If I were President…’
During the 2010 campaign, when Mayor Jesse was minding Noynoy Aquino’s networking with local officials, I was tempted to ask him: How can you stand this candidate who, when asked about local government issues, had nothing to say but, “Pag-aaralan ho natin ’yan”?
But I didn’t want to dampen his hopes. The Liberal Party, to which he now belonged, had assured him of the DILG portfolio if Noynoy won. And I was sure he wasn’t after it for the clout or the fame. Genuinely, he wanted to be in a position to introduce—even impose in a subtle, perfectly legal, way—good, transparent, efficient administration in local governments across the country.
I didn’t even think it was some conscious “I’ll prove that the Naga way is possible anywhere else” effort; he just wanted this chance to do good on a larger scale the way he knew best.
In April 2006, Newsbreak asked him to complete this sentence: “If I were President…” He replied, almost instantly that you knew he had thought this over before: “I will drastically change the allocation of government resources to favor local governments. I will make LGU leaders accountable to their constituents in a measurable way.”
That last part, he was able to do as DILG chief. I remember him stressing that any program, any platform, had to have “clear milestones” because they would give your constituents, your clientele, a sense of security where all these efforts were going. Like in a campaign, he said, “We didn’t just say we would address the flooding problem. We identified which streets we would fix when.”
I realized how single-minded he had become about this whole thing. He stood pat even when the President insulted him with this illegal move of limiting his authority to just the local government half of the department, and reserving the interior half for Noynoy’s shooting buddy. Because there were bigger things that just had to be done.
Clamor for Leni: A replay
The political significance of the date when his body was found wasn’t lost on me. As soon as I got the text in the morning of August 21, I started to fear that people, either overwhelmed by their love for Mayor Jesse or desperate to clinch an elusive additional senatorial seat for the ruling party, would egg on Mrs Robredo to run for the Senate.
Which crafty political strategist wouldn’t be itching to point out, and exploit, the parallelisms? Twenty-nine years ago, Ninoy Aquino, hero, died August 21. Sympathetic public swept his widow to the presidency. (Bonus, bonus, their son is now president, too!) That widow president gave Jesse his break in government when he was 29 years old. He was confirmed dead last August 21. Now, as I was starting to write this piece, news was being tweeted: “Leni Robredo for senator? Why not?”
Clamor to run for public office is not something new to Attorney Leni. The first time Mayor Jesse reached his term limit in 1998, supporters were afraid that the reforms he instituted in Naga would be undone if somebody not him would take over city hall. They wanted his wife.
She refused—instantly, firmly. The position, the Robredos believed, was not something up to be inherited; they didn’t have a monopoly on it. Leni gave her services pro bono to Nagueños as her way of supporting her husband’s administration. If he were not mayor, Jesse said, Attorney Leni would’ve pursued a career apart from his very public job.
So Mayor Jesse’s drawing power—his vote share averaged at 80% every election—was instead thrown behind local party mates in the 2 times he reached his term limit, in 1998 and in 2010.
I don’t know if anything has changed since that merienda that a friend and I had with Mayor Jesse in 2009 at Chocolate Kiss on Roces. Explaining why Attorney Leni wasn’t going to be coaxed into seeking electoral office, he said: “May sariling buhay ang misis ko. Hindi ’yan asawa lang ng mayor. Alam niya ang gusto niyang gawin.”
On that note, he would’ve put an end to all these trial balloons today and asked us: “O meron pa? Okay na tayo?”
And I would’ve answered, I think that would be all, sir. #SalamatJesse. – Rappler.com
Gigi Go is one of the journalists I respect immensely.
maam salamat po in sharing stories about sec. robredo, naiyak ako at kinilabutan the good thing is got the message crystal clear… thank u po uli…
to mr Robredo’s wala na akong masabe halos na sa kanya na ang lahat.
but those people still keep on criticizing President nonoy ; si mr Robredo at ang mrs nya ang nag patunay na maganda ang pamamalakad ng ating presidente pang kasalukuyan .
subukan natin maki isa , baka sa kaling lalo tayong uma senso, alisin na natin ang personalan dito.
salamat po !