2022 Philippine Elections

Isko Moreno’s inner circle paints picture of ‘obsessive’ leadership style

Pia Ranada
Isko Moreno’s inner circle paints picture of ‘obsessive’ leadership style

PARTNERS. Mayor Isko Moreno shares a light moment with Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna during his State of the City Address at the Manila City Hall on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Rappler

Rappler

The Manila mayor reads comments on his Facebook page, slept in his office for three months during the pandemic, and does inspections at any time of the day

MANILA, Philippines – Close to midnight on January 14, Isko Moreno goes live on his Facebook account. Visibly bleary-eyed and tired, he is sitting in a spot in Quirino Grandstand, showing viewers still awake at that time how his city’s drive-through vaccination was going.

It is the height of the post-holiday COVID-19 surge and, according to Moreno, he has gone live because he needs to stay awake.

In the video, he banters with Manila government staff who have brought pizza and soup.

Tumira na kayo, tumira na ako eh! (You get some, I already got!),” he tells his staff, showing his cup of soup to viewers.

Sitting down on the steps of a stairway, he tells viewers he is on top of the situation.

Basta hindi tayo titigil, mga kababayan (We won’t stop, my countrymen). Best effort,” he says.

The livestream goes on for nearly an hour. It’s mostly of Moreno talking to viewers, sharing his views and worries about the infections, teasing his staff, and at one point marveling at the size of a small pan de sal handed to him which he gorges on with gusto on camera (“Pero in fairness ah, malaman, hindi ampao.“)

Moreno’s closest associates and government colleagues Rappler spoke with paint a picture of the mayor as someone constantly on, “obsessed” with governance down to the smallest details. 

He is a man who reads the comments on his Facebook page’s livestreams, makes regular visits to construction sites of his priority projects, and is hands-on even with media Viber groups.

Watch Rappler’s interviews with Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna and Moreno chief of staff Let Zarcal here:

Isko Moreno’s inner circle paints picture of ‘obsessive’ leadership style
‘Adik’

Moreno typically gets to Manila city hall around 9 am or 10 am, except on Mondays when he arrives earlier.

Wearing his uniform of a shirt, jeans, Adidas Superstar sneakers, and rainbow strap Apple Watch, he regularly leads the flag-raising ceremony at the start of the week, an activity that is usually livestreamed on his Facebook account, Isko Moreno Domagoso.

After that, there’s no telling what time Moreno will go home. 

Moreno is a night person, a trait he shares with another mayor who had aspired for the presidency, Rodrigo Duterte.

‘Yan na naman, nag-aadik sa trabaho si Mayor,” said Manila Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna, when asked by Rappler to describe Moreno’s work ethic. (There goes the Mayor again, getting addicted to work.)

Mayor kasi is somebody na if he puts his heart into something, talagang sobra ‘yung tutok niya,” she added. (It’s because Mayor is somebody who, if he puts his heart into something, becomes hyper-focused on it.)

PARTNERS. Mayor Isko Moreno shares a light moment with Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna during his State of the City Address at the Manila City Hall on Thursday, July 15, 2021. Rappler

Lacuna has worked with Moreno since his last term as councilor from 2004 to 2007. But their ties go beyond that. Lacuna is the daughter of Moreno’s political mentor, former vice mayor Danny Lacuna. Moreno, then a young ingenue fresh from showbiz, would visit the older Lacuna’s home and meet his children.

Moreno now considers his late mentor’s family as his second family, especially after the death of his parents. Even in official settings, he sometimes calls Honey, 10 years his senior, “Ate.”

Lacuna described Moreno as someone whose mind is always buzzing.

“During his spare moments, when he’s all alone or when everyone is quiet, for example it’s just us two, you will see he is thinking and thinking and then suddenly he’ll go, ‘Ate, what do you think of this?’” she said.

Some ideas he’s hatched on his own are the COVID-19 Field Hospital in Luneta (inspired by what he read Indian authorities were doing during their early surge) and 24/7 drive-thru vaccination and swabbing.

According to her retelling, he had summoned city health officials and the engineering division to a meeting where he “started drawing on a piece of bond paper” his idea of a field hospital.

Honey, a doctor by training, suggested a tweak in Moreno’s initial idea: that the field hospital cater to mild patients instead of critical ones so it would be quicker to build.

Moreno readily adopted the Vice Mayor’s suggestion. Then, when construction began, he visited the site every day.

“He was focused on it daily, even if the only difference was if this plank was not yet nailed up and the next day, it was already nailed up,” said his chief of staff Let Zarcal, a former councilor and assistant secretary to the mayor.

The field hospital was completed in 52 days and was even inaugurated with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Senator Bong Go.

Moreno’s tendency to immerse himself in work saw its full manifestation in the first months of the pandemic. Starting on March 15, 2020, first day of the Metro Manila lockdown, he slept in city hall for three months.

His staff installed a makeshift bed for him in his office. He was often seen in shorts and sandals.

NIGHT OWL. Isko Moreno, wearing cap and shorts, visits a Manila drive-thru vaccination site at midnight on January 23, 2022. Isko Moreno Domagoso Facebook screenshot

Zarcal remembers the other Manila officials would go home to rest, but Moreno would sometimes call them for a meeting at midnight to confer with doctors or discuss legislation needed to provide aid.

When it was time to distribute the assistance, Moreno would do random checks on citizens if they received the aid, said Lacuna. He would then call whoever barangay official was in charge of aid that didn’t get to the constituents.

Then and now, officials close to the mayor have to be ready to get up and go if he decides to check up on this or that project or activity.

Wala siyang oras (He has no sense of time) so all of us are on call at any time of the day…. Even if he is all alone, he’ll still do an inspection,” said Lacuna.

Unsurprisingly, Moreno thrives on coffee. The man drinks two to three large cups a day, according to Zarcal. You will rarely see Moreno without a Starbucks cup in his hand, whether he’s sitting down for a meeting with police or giving his regular “Capitol Report” in his office.

In January, when over 20 people on his staff caught COVID-19, Moreno drove himself to official events and even did his Facebook live streaming on his own.

Moreno acknowledged his fixation on work had cost him precious time with family.

At his proclamation rally, he said: “Marami siguro akong pagkukulang sa buhay. Isa nga doon ‘yung pamilya ko, sila ang pinagdamutan ko ng oras dahil ang pamilya ko ay mga batang Manileño.

(I have many shortcomings in life. One of them is with my family, they are the ones I don’t get to spend much time with because my family is the children of Manila.)

Facebook governance

Moreno’s official Facebook account is almost always livestreaming something or posting the latest statistics on vaccinations and testing.

But, to Moreno, the platform is apparently more than a promotional tool, it’s a governance tool too.

Incredible as it sounds, Lacuna claims the Mayor reads all the comments on his Facebook page.

“The Mayor’s habit is he really checks the comments and he sees concerns he needs to attend do. For example, someone commented about a lamp post that hasn’t been fixed. We have a Viber group with all the department heads and he will call their attention,” said Lacuna.

Moreno would supposedly take a screenshot of the comment and post it on the group chat for staff to validate and then attend to.

When dealing with reporters covering his city, Moreno also tends to be hands-on, being part of the chat group himself and sometimes directly responding to a reporter’s query. Other officials would leave such a job to their public information officers. 

But, make no mistake, Moreno misses things too. 

For instance, he disappointed a group of Manileños who his administration supposedly stonewalled about the development in Arroceros Park. The Save the Arroceros Movement, who said they repeatedly sent letters to Moreno’s staff about their concern about construction in the park, cited a resolution signed by Moreno about which they should have been consulted first.

After social media backlash, the Mayor quickly met with them to listen to their concerns. But, as one member pointed out, the drama could have been avoided if city hall had just involved them in the planning from the start.

The nerd in the matinee idol

One of the character traits that convinced veteran political strategist Lito Banayo to lead Moreno’s presidential campaign was his “willingness to learn” and improve himself.

Zarcal, who had served as councilor alongside Moreno, thinks this may have stemmed from how he had constantly been underestimated early in his political career because of his showbiz background.

He remembers when Moreno was a first-time councilor, and then just a high school graduate. He had spoken up during a council session, citing provisions in the Local Government Code pertaining to municipal council ordinances.

He was then schooled by a fellow councilor who said the provisions didn’t apply because Manila was a highly-urbanized city.

After that, Moreno went back to school and got a degree in business administration from the International Academy of Management and Economics. He followed it up with courses in Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and University of the Philippines, and even short courses abroad at Harvard University and Oxford University. 

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He likes to read about historical figures and was particularly taken by documentaries and books by or about Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew. His vertical housing projects were inspired by Lee, said Lacuna.

One time when Zarcal was in the United States, he got a call from Moreno, who asked him to buy a book about aquaponics. Apparently, Moreno was told that if he wanted to put more greenery in Liwasang Bonifacio, aquaponics would ensure the plants would stay alive because they would have a steady source of water.

“That’s why he read that book. He wanted to get knowledge of how to do it. When he thinks of something, he does research,” said Zarcal, who was able to squeeze in a trip to the bookstore.

Moreno took some by surprise during the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas presidential forum when he mentioned Elon Musk and low earth orbit satellites as his solution to communication gaps immediately after a disaster. It was likely another thing he read about.

‘Pag alam niya kung ano gagawin, nao-obsess siya doon. Kailangan gawin niya,” said Zarcal. (When he knows what he has to do, he gets obsessed. He has to do it.)

Politically-agile or no backbone?

But in government it’s not enough to know what has to be done. Half of the job is getting other people onboard, especially politicians with their own interests and agenda.

Councilor Don Juan “DJ” Bagatsing, whose family has not always been allied with Moreno, said Moreno’s time as a vice mayor tested this ability.

Bagatsing witnessed this first-hand as a local legislator in the council led by the vice mayor. Moreno served three terms as vice mayor.

“If he sees the measure or the subject at hand to be important, he’ll find ways to get that thing passed. And if it takes convincing, he’ll do it. If it takes counter bargaining, negotiating, he’ll do it…. Basically, there’s no legislative measure that was needed that wasn’t passed during his time,” Bagatsing told Rappler.

Dealing with politicians taught Moreno the value of being politically-agile, perhaps one reason why he’s gone from supporting one Manila mayor to another. 

He’s been ally and critic, at different points in time, of former mayors Lito Atienza, Alfredo Lim, and Joseph Estrada – giving detractors fodder to call him a political butterfly.

That agility – others would say lack of backbone – is now manifested on the national stage by Moreno’s softening stance on President Duterte, who he had once been critical of. 

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While disappointing to those who had initially seen in Moreno an alternative opposition candidate, it’s a valid strategy in an electoral landscape that already has an opposition figure (Robredo) but lacks a clear-cut pro-administration figure.

A few people who worked with Moreno on his campaign think his friendliness to Duterte is a strategy formulated by Banayo, a former Duterte appointee and key figure in his 2016 campaign.

But Banayo told Rappler there is no “conscious effort” or “strategy” for Moreno to sound pro-Duterte. He denies “egging on” Moreno to make such remarks. But when the mayor’s “Yellowtard” comment dismayed some of Banayo’s friends and they hoped Moreno would apologize to Robredo, Banayo did not make such a recommendation to the mayor.

“When he made that ‘cri de cœur,’ and well-meaning friends advised me to advise him to apologize publicly, someone even suggesting he send Leni pink roses, I did not,” Banayo told Rappler.

“As a campaign strategist, I do not believe in faking the persona or character of my principal. Fakery will always be noticed by the Filipino people,” he added.

Weakness, miscalculation

Being completely in the zone when it comes to work has its downsides. 

Zarcal, Lacuna, and Bagatsing all say Moreno has a tendency to get quite affected when programs or enterprises hit a snag.

One time his emotions may have gotten the better of him a day after Vice President Leni Robredo launched her candidacy and the hashtag #WithdrawIsko trended on Twitter.

Moreno, asked about the hashtag during a Manila event, called Liberal Party supporters “Yellowtards” and implied Robredo was a “fake leader with a fake character.”

Several people in Moreno’s inner circle were disappointed with his remarks and believed it to be the wrong move.

“Being a presidential candidate, he could’ve suppressed his feeling more. But that was out of his character. It sprung from his ill feeling so he said it immediately. He miscalculated because he said it in public,” Zarcal told Rappler.

Zarcal was among the people in Moreno’s camp who was present in his talks with Robredo and her camp about unifying for the 2022 elections.

He and other people Rappler spoke with who were present claim Robredo had said she was not running for president and would help the opposition candidate in sorties. 

So when Robredo announced her presidential bid, Moreno felt betrayed, as if he had been taken for a ride, sources said.

The #WithdrawIsko hashtag was like adding salt to an open wound.

But Robredo’s spokesman Barry Gutierrez had insisted that at the time of those talks with Moreno, Robredo had been undecided about running for president.

Other times Moreno got frustrated was during the early months of the pandemic, Zarcal, Lacuna, and Bagatsing all said.

Bagatsing described Moreno as someone who hates it when “things are left dangling” and as someone who “cannot sit still.”

In the rush to bring aid to families during the pandemic, Moreno called for a meeting with the council on a Sunday via Zoom, recalls the councilor. Moreno was frustrated that the distribution was not going fast enough.

The Mayor “hates” delays to government programs and will typically summon the person in charge, said Lacuna. You will know he is angry but he has not resorted to name-calling or cursing so far, said the three.

Zarcal himself was on the receiving end of Moreno’s disappointment. There was a time a measure Moreno needed was not ratified by the council because of an oversight by Zarcal’s office.

“Sabi niya, ‘Dapat kasi tinututukan mo.’ Alam mo frustrated siya…. He reminds you of your job. Pero ‘yung mumurahin, never ko narinig,” he said. (He said, “You should’ve been on top of it.” You know he’s frustrated…. He reminds you of your job. But cursing, I never heard him do that.)

Zarcal is among the people close to Moreno who would’ve preferred it if he sought reelection as mayor. The “sigurista” in Zarcal knows that another term was in the bag whereas Malacañang would be an uphill battle.

But when Moreno talks about his presidential bid with his most trusted advisers, there is something philosophical about his motivations to see it through despite the challenges.

“He says he can’t fathom why he is a presidential candidate. He was just a garbage collector. There must be a reason behind it. There must be a path being laid for him,” said Zarcal about Moreno, a religious man.

Does that path lead to Malacañang? In around 80 days, we’ll find out. – Rappler.com

Read part one of Rappler’s series about Isko Moreno’s governance: Isko Moreno’s infrastructure legacy in Manila: Fast, furious, and ambitious

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.