DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Ruy Elias Lopez’s earliest memories of Rodrigo Duterte, the man who’d one day be president, are plenty.
There is one of his father, on Soling Duterte’s request, lobbying to create a new post at the fiscal’s office so the new lawyer Rody could work there. Soling is the mother of Rody Duterte who would later become mayor of Davao City before ascending to the presidency.
There are memories of Lopez staying out late with his father, a former mayor, to campaign for Rody in his first bid to become Davao City mayor.
But what stands out the most, perhaps because it was the last, was a Saturday evening in 2006. After confirming from Duterte himself that the Davao mayor was fielding his eldest daughter Sara as vice mayor in 2007, the 61-year-old Lopez walked away – from a friendship that began in the ’70s and political ties that started when they were young men.
Lopez was upset. Duterte was wildly popular, so any candidate he chose would breeze through the election, meaning father and daughter would hold the highest posts in Davao City. Forget checks and balances, Lopez thought then.
“Sabi ko, kung ganyan, kung ‘di kita mapugngan, I cannot bring the name of my father sa ganyang kalokohan na pamulitika. I cannot go with you sa ganyan. That’s the last time nag-usap kami,” said Lopez, recalling the events nearly 14 years later.
(If that’s the case, if I cannot stop you, then I cannot bring the name of my father into this political nonsense. I cannot go with you in something like this. That’s the last time we spoke.)
Things did not get physical, although Lopez did make sure to keep a close eye on Duterte first. “[Ingon siya], ‘istorya na lang ta sa laing adlaw, Ruy.’ Umalis na ako. And that was the last time nagkausap kami. Ganoon lang, simple as that.”
(He said, “Let’s talk another time, Ruy.” Then I left. And that was the last time we spoke to each other. That was it, simple as that.)
Lopez’s third consecutive congressional term ended in 2007. Three years later, Lopez teamed up with the late Prospero Nograles, once a political nemesis, to challenge Sara for the mayoralty post. The older Duterte ran for vice mayor.
Both Lopez and Nograles lost that year, in an election that Duterte biographer Earl Parreño said “sealed Duterte’s hold on Davao City politics.”
‘Flash in my mind’
Fourteen years later, Lopez again finds himself at odds with a different Duterte.
Lopez, now a retired lawyer, is running for mayor of Davao City. It’s a post that a Duterte has held for the last 34 years, save for one term from 1998 to 2001.
He’s going up against Sebastian Duterte, the incumbent President’s youngest son and newbie vice mayor in the 2022 polls, although he was initially supposed to run against Sara, the same daughter whose candidacy triggered their political fallout in the first place.
Sara has since withdrawn her mayoral candidacy and is seeking the vice presidency under “UniTeam,” an alliance that’s made her and presidential aspirant Bongbong Marcos Jr. the de facto team to beat in 2022.
Lopez’s candidacy was a surprise to many – erstwhile allies, the few remaining allies and supporters, and, in a way, to Lopez himself. “I was waiting for anyone here in Davao to challenge, to show the people na hindi lahat ng taga- (not everyone from) Davao, agree with [the Dutertes]. But nobody did. I filed through a representative, hoping at the last minute that somebody will file,” he said.
He finally made his decision on the evening of October 7 and filed via representative 30 minutes before the deadline to file certificates of candidacy.
“It came like a flash in my mind, because of course, I was weighing the pros and cons… then it came as a flash in my mind: this is what my father would have wanted me to do, to stand up.”
He said all these things matter-of-factly during an outdoor interview in his Davao city home, more than two months before the campaign period for local posts begin.
A few footsteps away from where we sat is the Lopez ancestral home – the same house that once hosted both tenured and then up-and-coming politicians back in the day. It’s the same house a young Duterte frequented when he first sought the mayorship.
Thrust into politics
When your father is city mayor, your home isn’t actually just yours.
Lopez remembered crowds of people outside their home, people hoping to get an audience with his father, the first pure Bagobo mayor. City hall extended all the way up to their sala, which meant that as children, they couldn’t just run around freely or even play in their house.
To Lopez, growing up a mayor’s son meant public service sometimes came first. It also meant that the perks – if any – were his alone. His father would always tell them that the mandate to govern was given to him, and not his wife or children.
So if Ruy Elias Lopez had his way, he would not have ever entered politics in the first place.
“[My father] had been asking me to join politics but I didn’t like it. Kalokohan man ‘yan. Why? Gagastos ka your own money… when you win, you serve people. What kind of a career is that? You pay to be a slave, di ba?”
(It’s foolish. Why? You spend your own money [to run] and when you win, you serve the people.)
But when his father died in 1998, the question of the clan’s future in politics loomed. Would Elias Lopez be the last politician in the family? If he wasn’t, who’d join the fray?
Lopez and his siblings put it to a vote. Half wanted a family member to join politics while the other half, including Lopez himself, wanted out. It was their mother who broke the tie. “If your father was alive, he would have wanted to continue [his legacy],” she told them.
Before he knew it, the family picked him, the sole lawyer and middle child, to run for public office. Months after their father’s death, Lopez filed his candidacy to take over his father’s post as Davao City 3rd district representative. He easily won and ended up “batch mates” in Congress with Rody Duterte, members of the first-time congressmen of 1998.
‘Wala silang kalaban?’
Between sticks of Marlboro Lights, Lopez took his time going through his and his father’s political history and how it intertwines with the usual big names in Davao politics – Almendras, Nograles, Respicio, Garcia, Quitain, just to name a few.
It was December 2021, and while days were filled with meetings ahead of the 2022 elections. Lopez had touched base with potential allies, both old and new.
Earlier in 2021, when nobody – not even himself – knew he’d be seeking the city’s highest post, he had been courted by various camps to act as city or regional campaign manager. He either rejected or didn’t answer back after the offers were made.
Elias Lopez’s son wants to see change in Davao City. He looked back at 34 years of Duterte at the helm and saw it as an entire generation of good leaders “skipped over” because Rody was in power. “I retired already. It’s just that… ayan na naman? Wala silang kalaban?” (It’s them again? Nobody’s challenging them?)
“Sinasabi ko sa tao, mudagan ko arong adunay pagpilian mga tao,” he added. (I tell people I’m running so that they have options.)
It’s also one of the reasons why Mags Maglana, a development worker, is challenging another Duterte son in 2022.
How you’re elected, said Lopez, influences how you eventually serve.
“When you court the votes of the people, you feel obligated that the trust was given to you. Pero kung wala kang kalaban (But if you’re unopposed), you don’t feel obligated. It was just given to you on a silver platter,” he said.
It’s easier said than done. In Davao City, the Dutertes’ popularity is unmatched. People who’ve observed, reported on, or experienced politics in Davao City will tell you as much. Duterte himself, despite a decline in ratings, remains popular as president.
Despite the odds, Lopez is hopeful. Sebastian Duterte might have the name and all the advantages it comes with, but Lopez said he can boast of experience. “It’s an even fight. I have trust and confidence sa mga people of Davao na nag-iisip ‘yan. Hindi sunud-sunuran ang mga ‘yan. So mag-isip sila,” he said. (I have trust and confidence that the people of Davao are thinking. They aren’t blind followers. They’ll think about their vote.)
Lopez already has one priority in mind should he win: “reestablish the good practices of good governance.” He wants the streamlining of business permits, the establishment of a city-funded hospital and college, getting rid of corruption, and “dismantling the DDS” or the infamous Davao Death Squad, for which the International Criminal Court wants Duterte probed.
Behind all his plans, his bravado, and optimism is, unabashedly, the memory of his father.
Lopez speaks of his father with deep reverence. He doesn’t mind that his father, over two decades gone, is still top of mind. It’s a source of pride, he said, when people identify him as Elias Lopez’s son.
Asked about the burden of having a father who casts a shadow much longer than his, Lopez is baffled – why is that even a problem?
He recalled his first year as a newbie legislator at a hotel in Manila. Tenured congressmen chanced upon him, recognized him immediately, and started a conversation with Elias’ son.
I point out that for many people whose parents were giants in the same industry they’re in, the reputation that precedes them is a huge cross to bear. He can’t relate.
“Bakit magiging source of insecurity ang father nila? [Maybe because] they’re not proud of what their father did? Bakit, [dahil] ma-measure sila against their father? Of course! Because my father is above there,” he said.
(Why would their father be a source of insecurity? [Maybe because] they’re not proud of what their father did? Why, because they’re measured against their father? Of course! Because my father is above there.)
There are many more stories Ruy Elias Lopez wants to tell. Mostly, they’re of his father. Sometimes, they’re part of the reasons why he wants to see change in Davao City.
But the story-telling must end because there’s another meeting to go to. The biggest of Ruy Elias Lopez’s own stories, after all, ends – or begins – on May 9, 2022 yet. – Rappler.com
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