Jesse Robredo

The ‘ordinariness’ of Jesse Robredo

Bea Cupin

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The ‘ordinariness’ of Jesse Robredo

President Benigno S. Aquino III prays before the grave of the late Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo in commemoration of the third death anniversary during his visit at the Eternal Gardens in Naga City on Tuesday (August 18, 2015). (Photo by Joseph Vidal/ Malacañang Photo Bureau)

Photo by Joseph Vidal/ Malacañang

While the administration he once served now sees him an icon of good governance, his family says Jesse Robredo’s greatest gift is that of his ‘ordinariness’

NAGA CITY, Philippines – The late Jesse Robredo is now known for a lot of things.

He is remembered as the young mayor who helped shaped Naga into the city that it is today, the first former local chief executive appointed to the powerful Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2000, and a champion of good governance at the local level.

But 3 years after his untimely death, Jesse Robredo is remembered as a “regular” man who “gave his all” and never scrimped on the things that mattered.

Kahit naging pulitiko sya, naging exceptional yung lahat ng pagmamahal na kinakailangan namin, hindi siya nagkulang. Kahit yung oras at atensyon, hindi siya nagkulang. Alam ng lahat ng taga dito sa amin na napaka-ordinaryo niya at palagay ko yung ordinariness na yun, yun yung regalo nya sa akin,” said Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo, the former DILG chief’s widow, on Tuesday, August 18 during “Jesse Robredo Day” in Naga city.

(Even when he entered politics, he was exceptional in giving us the love we needed, he was never short. Even when it came to time and attention, he never came up short. Everyone in Naga knows how ordinary he was and I think his ordinariness, that was his gift to us.)

On August 18, a plane Robredo was riding plunged into the waters off Masbate, killing him and his two pilots. After 3 days of intense search operations, the country would eventually come to terms with the loss of a “bright boy” whom colleagues in government remember as a man who did not mind doing the “little unheralded and unglamorous things.”

The sinking feeling

The sun was shining bright and the skies, clear over the Eternal Gardens Memorial Park in Naga City, where Robredo was laid to rest.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015, was a rather unusual day for the people in Naga. The normally peaceful city had to deal with the influx of one top government official after another. Cabinet secretaries, including administration standard-bearer and current DILG Secretary Manuel Roxas II, officials from the city and nearby provinces, and no less than President Benigno Aquino III himself.

“This is the last year of governance for the Aquino administration where the President and fellow Cabinet members get to commemorate Jesse’s passing. And what fitting way to commemorate his death anniversary than by visiting him in his beloved hometown,” Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda had earlier said.

Robredo’s “Cabinet barkada,” as his youngest daughter Jillian put it, came early – Lacierda, Palace Deputy Spokesperson Undersecretary Abigail Valte, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Budget chief Florencio Abad, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Ging Deles, Mindanao Development Authority Chief Secretary Luwalhati Antonino, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, and Justice Chief Leila de Lima, to name a few.

Roxas and Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya came in later, accompanying Aquino.

The Cabinet members present were the same ones who played key roles in the search for Robredo. Those who were in Manila organized a prayer vigil for the then-missing Cabinet secretary while Roxas led operations in Masbate.

For Roxas, who the Robredo family describes as a close friend of Jesse’s, it was hard to remember how and when he first met the late “Sec Jess.” What is seared in his mind, however, is the moment he was told Robredo’s remains were found.

Naalala ko pa, ilang araw matapos magsimula ang search and rescue operations. Nahanap ang wreckage ng eroplano. Martes din noon isang mainit na araw sa Masbate. Nasa command center kami nina Sec. Butch, Sec. Jun, at iba pa. At sa ober-ober, nakausap namin si Eli na nagkumpirma ng balita.

(I remember, it happened a few days after the search and rescue operations began. They found the airplane wreckage. It was also a Tuesday and the sun was shining brightly over Masbate. I was in the command center with Sec Butch, Sec Jun [Abaya] and others. Over the radio, I spoke to Eli [Antonino] who confirmed the news.)

– Mar Roxas, recalling the search operations for Jesse Robredo

“As much as I struggled to remember my first encounter with Jesse, I will never forget that sinking feeling, that hollowness that followed after determining that Jesse was no longer with us,” said Roxas in a speech delivered during a program held in front of the Naga city hall.

For Aquino, Robredo’s is a legacy that mirrors that of his late father, the martyred Senator Ninoy Aquino.

Para nga pong itinadhana na magkapareho ang petsa ng pagpaslang sa aking ama at ng pagkakatagpo sa katawan ni Jesse. Sa magkaibang paraan, pareho nilang pinatunayang “The Filipino is worth dying for.” Kung kasama si Jesse sa mga Pilipinong nagsiklab ang pagmamahal sa bayan dahil sa pagkamatay ng aking ama, natitiyak kong marami rin ang humuhugot ng inspirasyon sa ipinakitang halimbawa ni Jesse.

– President Benigno Aquino III on Jesse Robredo

Rough patches

But Robredo and Aquino’s journey along the so-called “Daang Matuwid (Straight Path)” was not always easy.

For one, it took awhile for Aquino to name him DILG Secretary.

Robredo was already DILG chief – albeit in an acting capacity – during the 2010 Quirino hostage crisis which claimed the lives of 8 Hong Kong tourists.

This incident was brought up during the Tuesday tribute for Robredo, held in front of the city hall. Councilor Gabby Bordado, who worked with Robredo during their time in city hall, recalled the bloody incident which led to calls from sectors to kick the former Naga mayor out of his Cabinet post.

Current DILG chief Mar Roxas, President Benigno Aquino III, and Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo. Photo by Joseph vidal/ Malacañang Photo Bureau

But Nagaueños, Bordado said, insisted Robredo stay on because he had yet to show people his real worth.

Robredo was kept out of the loop in the high-stakes hostage crisis, a manifestation of how Aquino took away the “interior” part of his role as DILG chief. Instead, oversight of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Bureau of Fire Protection, and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology was informally handed over to the President’s gun-shooting buddy, former Undersecretary Rico Puno.

Puno eventually left the DILG following Robredo’s death, but this wasn’t until after the President’s friend controversially tried to “secure” important documents from the late secretary’s condominium in Metro Manila. The undersecretary then was being investigated for allegedly anomalous procurements in the PNP.

The hostage crisis, Bordado recalled, made it seem as though Robredo was incompetent as DILG chief. Aquino was on-stage, alongside current DILG head Roxas, and Robredo’s widow Leni, as Bordado narrated the 2010 crisis.

Years later, this presidential decision to keep the DILG chief out of the loop in a high-stakes police operation would be repeated during the bloody “Oplan Exodus” of 2015 that led to the Mamasapano tragedy, the worst crisis to hit the Aquino administration. Roxas was kept out of the loop in that operation.

Robredo would stay on as DILG chief, although he never did get a nod from the Commission of Appointments. If this bothered Robredo then, it didn’t show. Because, colleagues said, that was just how he was.

Hindi firebrand si Jesse. Hindi siya mahilig makipagpalakasan ng boses sa entablado. Hindi siya nakikipagpapogian sa media (Jesse was not a firebrand. He didn’t care if his wasn’t the loudest voice on stage. He wasn’t there to simply look good in front of the media.) Jesse was a worker. Trabaho ang gobyerno para sa kanya (To him, government meant work), not in the mercenary sense but in the sense of doing all the little unheralded and unglamorous things that inch us closer to our goals,” Roxas said of Robredo. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.