MANILA, Philippines – Getting into politics wanting to make a difference, Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto first decided what he would never do – buy votes, take bribes, hurt anyone – before jumping in with a keen awareness that his morals and convictions would be tested, he told the social media group Humans of Ateneo.
"I strongly believe that anyone can be corrupt; we can't think too highly of ourselves. 'Pag pumasok ka sa kaguluhang 'yan, 'pag pumasok ka sa giyera na 'di ka handa, mawawala ka talaga. Kailangan talaga ng tamang preparasyon," Sotto said in an interview transcribed and shared on Humans of Ateneo’s Facebook page on Sunday night, December 8.
(When you jump into that chaos, when you get into a war when you're not ready, you really will get lost. Having the right preparation is really necessary.)
It was a good thing he spent several months working with the Ateneo School of Government's programs Political Democracy and Reform and Government Watch before running for Pasig City District 1 councilor in 2016, Sotto said, because it prepared him for what came next.
"Naisip ko, paano kung tumakbo na ako right after college? Kasi people were already convincing me to run noon. Paano kung for some reason, um-oo ako? I wouldn't be the same person. Malamang magiging corrupt na rin ako kung ganu'n," Sotto said.
(I realized, what if I ran [for public office] right after college? Because people were already convincing me to run then. What if, for some reason, I said yes? I wouldn't be the same person. I probably would have become corrupt, too, if that had been the case.)
Sotto's first foray into government work was "a few years" after earning his bachelor's degree in Political Science from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2011. A biographical sketch on his official Facebook page states that Sotto worked as a legislative staff officer of the Quezon City council from 2013 to 2015.
Sotto also volunteered with the district office of Pasig congressman Roman Romulo in 2013. Romulo, still Pasig representative, is now Sotto's political ally.
Sotto said his early experiences working in government got him frustrated "with certain things...institutionalized practices," which eventually drove him to resign.
"I don't blame anyone, 'cause it's been like that for so long. But I didn't know what I was going to do. I resigned, and then I looked for a job because I didn't know what I was going to do with my life," he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
That's how Sotto found himself back in the Ateneo, working in the School of Government's independent programs on politics and governance.
"I was there for less than a year, but the truth is that's where I got trained, especially with the way I think: how to push for governance reforms? I studied everything they did in the past, and what their engagements were with local governments," he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Having had experience both in the academe and in the bureaucracy, Sotto entered politics in 2016 with an openness to the sordid realities of local government, even as he clung to his ideals.
"One of the biggest challenges is really getting off our high horses. Not accepting, but understanding certain realities. There are certain things in government that, before I entered or before I ran, are my non-negotiables. And I think that's what's most important for everyone who wants to get into government, kung malinis talaga 'yung intention. Ako, very minimal lang naman, I don't claim to be the best person: No vote-buying, 'di ako tatanggap ng kickback, 'di ako mananakit ng tao. Everything else, p'wede ko pag-isipan (if their intentions are really clean. As for me, it was very minimal, I don't claim to be the best person: No vote-buying, I will never accept kickbacks, I will never hurt anyone. Everything else, I can think over)," Sotto said.
The moment anyone offers him money, whether P10,000 or P10 billion, that's it, it's not going to happen, Sotto added. He is open to discuss gray areas, but he would never accept even a peso of grease money.
"That's the hardest part of all, because a lot of people enter the government with good intentions, but they get lost along the way because they didn't decide beforehand what they would not do. Things change every day. New opportunities come and go. You'll meet someone you didn't expect the next day, so it's hard to say, 'This is what I'll do.' It's impossible. You never know what you can be capable of – but what I won't do, whatever happens, I won't do it," he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Sotto's victory in Pasig's May 2019 mayoral race ended the Eusebio clan's nearly three-decade rule over the city, characterized by patronage politics and nepotism. During Sotto's first 100 days as mayor, his administration uncovered – and were forced to deal with – anomalies left over by his predecessors, such as billions of pesos in missing inventories, undocumented government properties, and a culture of corruption among city hall employees and workers.
Sotto has since sacked and investigated a number of bureaucrats, shut down erring establishments, and reorganized the city government's procurement process to guard against corruption.
The new mayor faced criticism from both opponents and supporters who said his administration was rather slow going. He was warned that the Eusebios are out and about plotting their comeback – and Sotto's downfall – so the young reformer had better start playing the old political game to save his own skin.
But Sotto refuses to become the monster he is trying to fight, he told Rappler as he marked his 100th day in office in October.
He admits trying to change things is difficult. "Kahit nga sign lang sa pintuan, mahirap baguhin (Even door signs are hard to change)," he said. When an entire bureaucracy has been doing things the wrong way for decades, sometimes people stop realizing why it's wrong.
"It's hard to introduce change in a very bureaucratic, procedural, and rigid government. So, in the end, it is really just a matter of finding the right balance," Sotto added.
He compared the job with trying to move a giant wheel. At first, it takes a whole lot of effort from a lot of people to get the thing to budge. But when it finally gets going, it gains momentum until it becomes unstoppable.
Part of the trick is to surround oneself with like-minded, trustworthy people who would call you out when you make mistakes, Sotto said, "because, obviously, nobody's perfect so I will make mistakes along the way: not just technical, but moral as well. The thing that I should consider is if I will have people to confront me and tell me I'm making those mistakes, because everyone has their blind spots. When you're in the middle of the storm, it's very easy to lose sight of the future, it's easy to lose sight of your principles and your beliefs. I need people who are with me and will be able to confront me and tell me that I'm at that point already."
So how does Sotto manage a city with 850,000 constituents and a 10,000-strong bureaucracy?
"Half the battle is being well-prepared: studying the situation, knowing where there will be points of opposition, knowing what you can't change for now, I think, is an important thing to come to terms with. I think it's a journey that I think not only people in government will face, but anyone who wants to introduce some type of change. I think a big part of staying sane as someone who's idealistic is accepting that I can't change everything at the same time," Sotto said. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.