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So who spoiled the Antoninos’ party?

Edwin G. Espejo
Ronnel Rivera, 41, breaks the Antoninos' decades-long hold on General Santos City. He was Darlene's childhood friend, their fathers being former friends and business partners

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Mayor-elect Ronnel Rivera’s convincing win over re-electionist Darlene Magnolia Antonino-Custodio is one of Mindanao’s biggest upsets. No less than two presidents who endorsed Darlene – Benigno Aquino III and Joseph Estrada – fell flat on their faces.

For 27 years, the Antoninos held sway in the city. Despite losing two elections within that span, they were never out of political power.

Theirs was a dominance many thought would never come to an end. They survived four Philippine presidents as local opposition. They had a brief honeymoon with one who did not finish his term. They were poised to finally enjoy a ball with Malacañang. Until Rivera spoiled the party.

Darlene belongs to the third generation of a political family whose paternal grandparents were once senators. 

Darlene’s father Adelbert Antonino was elected to the House of Representative in 1987 under the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), representing the first district of South Cotabato. In 1988, Darlene’s mother Lualhati failed in her bid to become mayor of General Santos, losing to then officer-in-charge Mayor Rosalita Nuñez.

In 1992, Adelbert would, in turn, defeat Nuñez in the mayoralty race. Lualhati also won the congressional seat vacated by Adelbert that year. In 1995, however, Adelbert lost to Nuñez. Lualhati, though, was re-elected in the same year and served her three consecutive 3-year term before yielding the position to then 27-year-old daughter Darlene.

Then Adelbert got his revenge in 1998, trouncing Nuñez. Adelbert however surprised many when he resigned in 2000 to make room for their understudy, Vice Mayor Pedro Acharon Jr, who won as mayor the following year. In 2010, Acharon and Darlene traded places after serving out their respective term limits.

The Antoninos are one of the enduring dynasties in this part of the region. Many have tried but failed to dismantle the formidable machinery Adelbert built through the years.

New kid on the block

ENDING ANTONINOS' RULE. Ronnel Rivera, son of General Santos City's richest businessman, defeats re-electionist Darlene Antonino-Custodio in the mayoral race. Photo by Cocoy Sexcion

Until 41-year-old Ronnel Rivera – a childhood friend of Darlene, due to their fathers’ previous friendship and business partnership – came along.

Ronnel is the second of the 6 Rivera siblings to become enamored with local politics. Eldest brother Ryan ran for city mayor but lost miserably in 2004. That unsuccessful bid strained the friendship between Adelbert and the Rivera patriarch Rudy, who probably the richest man in the city.

Ronnel started out as a city councilor, who topped the 2010 local elections despite running as an independent and after a failed try to land in the slate of the Antoninos. Three mayoral rivals of Darlene carried him to compensate for the Antonino snub.

But even early on, many saw his city council run as a prelude to capturing city hall. The buzz in 2010 was that Rivera outspent Darlene’s 3 rivals combined.

His win coincided with the rise of Manny Pacquiao as political heavyweight in the region. Pacquiao also won in 2010, defeating Roy Chiongbian for the lone congressional district of nearby Sarangani. He ran for re-election unopposed this year.

Friends even before they won, Rivera and Pacquiao would form an alliance after their victories, creating Mindanao’s richest political partnership, assets-wise.

Pacquiao, with a declared net worth of P1.7 billion, however still pales in comparison against the Riveras who own a bank aside from being the biggest tuna producer in the city. All told, the Riveras have at least 52 corporations spread all over the country and across the Pacific.

Together, they would topple the Antoninos.

Old money vs nouveau rich

AQUINO ALLY. General Santos City Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio is gunning for re-election, and has been endorsed by President Benigno Aquino III. Photo by Edwin Espejo

It was rumored that the Riveras spent at least P25 million in the 2004 failed mayoralty bid of Ryan. A former aide of the Antoninos then mockingly said that Ryan could have won if he had P50 million.

Ryan lost probably not because he did not spend enough. It was the well-entrenched machinery of his rival that did him in, and, not to mention, the Antonino’s massive war chest.

The Antoninos are themselves rich – old rich – who made their fortunes in logging in the 1950s and 1960s. The Antoninos once ran and owned the Western Mindanao Lumber Co Inc. The late Gaudencio Antonino was chairman of the board ofdirectors of Industrial Mutual Fund Inc; Munoz Motors, Inc.; Apayao Mining andOil co., Inc.; and United Finance Corporation. He was also director of BataanPulp and Paper Mill Company, Reinsurance Company of the Orient MusicCorporation of the Philippines; Philippine Engineers Syndicate; and RicoFinance Corporation.

Adelbert also managed the defunct Mindanao Lumber Development Company in Kiamba, Sarangani, and was a major stockholder of RCBC before he divested his interest following his congressional win in 1987.

When the Adelbert side of the Antoninos joined local politics in General Santos and eventually dominated for more than two decades, they used their vast resources to fend off challenges and to topple rivals.

They essentially made elections here and about very expensive.

In the Riveras, together with Pacquiao, however, the Antoninos finally found their match.

No one is talking, but former city councilor Dominador Lagare told the local media here that the Riveras and Pacquiao probably spent P1 billion combined. That’s probably overstated, but the electoral expenses of two new kids on the block could easily top the P300 million mark. An insider from the Antonino camp volunteered that Darlene spent at least P200 million in the last election.

Change that resonated

Rivera ran on the simplest platform of change, but his low-key approach of asking the voters to give somebody other than the Antoninos the chance to run the city eventually resonated.

The pestering power outages and the decrepit state of the city’s lone government hospital become rallying issues for Rivera and his candidates. They reduced Darlene and her mother, Mindanao Development Authority chair Lualhati, to finger pointing – blaming Socoteco II for the power supply shortage and nearby Sarangani province for crowding the General Santos City District Hospital.

Read: In GenSan, power crisis for the Antoninos

Once impervious to propaganda and political attacks, they began to hurt.

Not even President Aquino’s two visits to the city during the campaign former President Estrada’s last-minute phone patch that effectively junked his local UNA line-up couldn’t help Darlene.

Rivera, his running mate and re-electionist Vice Mayor Shirlyn Bañas, and 7 of his 12 elective city councilors won, giving Rivera complete control of city hall. 

His own man

Rivera will have his hands full trying to become his own man. Two larger than life figures loom over him – his father and Manny Pacquiao.

Rudy Rivera, who is deferred to as “GM” in his group of companies and in the business community, once bitterly complained after being described as a “shrewd and ruthless businessman.” He found it offensive. 

Many have questioned his business style and ethics. He is said to have alienated many in the fishing industry who sees him as the tuna industry’s version of early computer game Pacman.

Known to be a control freak, the Rivera patriarch may have been ticked off by insinuation that his being a tightwad would harm his son’s candidacy. To prove his point, the GM, for the first time, appeared on stage and did what he never had done before – speak in the proclamation rally. For the GM, it was a point of no return.

GM effectively became Ronnel’s campaign manager. How he will influence or let loose Ronnel when his son takes oath as city mayor is everybody’s favorite watch in the city nowadays.

Then there is Pacquiao, who provided the mayor-elect the political party to launch his mayoralty bid. Ronnel will undoubtedly look to repay political debts to Pacquiao. 

It was said that Pacquiao and the Riveras agreed to evenly split campaign expenses in the city as Rogelio Pacquiao also ran (but lost) for congressman. Insiders however said it became an all Rivera show midway through the campaign period and after Rudy took over the helm as CEO of Ronnel’s bid.

A graduate at the San Carlos University in Cebu, Ronnel has shown his ability to be a good manager. He was recently nominated as Entrepeneur of the Year by Ernst and Young. He is the president of RD Shipyard, in addition to being the vice president for fishing operations of their flagship RD Fishing Corporation. 

His company position enabled him to directly deal with their workers and he may need plenty of those experience in dealing with city hall employees and residents in the city.

Ronnel may also have to shake off some excess baggage, starting with friends who are not exactly the epitome of good character. He was once sued for rape and escaped death when he was shot by a jilted boyfriend of a woman he drove home from a popular bar. 

All that may be behind him now, but he will have to be more circumspect as record of his youthful folly could haunt him one day.

The real task ahead of him now, however, is how to be different from the tenant of city hall that he evicted. –

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