Jesse Robredo’s journey back home

Jesse Robredo, probably the most awarded among local government leaders, had a love affair with Naga that spanned over 18 years. On August 18 he was supposed to come home, but he never made it.


MANILA, Philippines – He was probably the most awarded among Philippine local government leaders, with more than 140 awards and citations to his name. 

Jesse Manalastas Robredo even won in August 2000 the award that would top them all — the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.

Civil society groups and international donor associations working on governance reforms loved him. Yet until his appointment as Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary in 2010, he never ventured beyond the city’s political confines.

It came to a point when people began to wonder why — for all the glory and honor conferred on him — Robredo wouldn’t spread his political wings beyond Naga City.

Love affair with Naga

Jesse Robredo and Naga City shared a love affair that spanned almost 2 decades. He got elected mayor of Naga City for the first time in 1988. He was 29 at the time.

After he reached the 3-succeeding term limit set by the Constitution, he chose to take a hiatus from government in 1998 instead of vying for a higher post.

Money was a consideration. In a 2007 interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Robredo said he did not even have the resources to run for a bigger jurisdiction, whether for Congress or for provincial governor.

Naga City was his comfort zone. In an interview with this author for a Newsbreak article published in April 2006, Robredo said, “I am more comfortable at the local level, where you immediately see the results of your labors, where you have clear limitations.”

Robredo had a charisma that endeared him to the common man. It was not unusual, locals say, to see the mayor in slippers, shorts, and white shirt helping sweep the streets or cleaning up the drainage days after a typhoon.

But he became better known for the reforms he instituted in office. In the early years of his administration, Robredo had to contend with a practically stagnant economy that caused revenues to sink so low that Naga City was downgraded from being a first-class to a third-class city.

The traffic problem then was fast becoming a huge headache. Thousands of squatters filled Naga’s vacant lots, hoping to land jobs in the city. The city was mired in gambling and other organized crime.

Award-winning reforms

As mayor, among the first things the young Robredo tackled was helping resettle the squatters and slum dwellers who comprised some 25% of the city population.

He also cracked down on gambling and other illegal activities, and improved collection of taxes to close the budget deficit. To ease traffic, the bus and jeepney terminals were relocated to the outskirts of the city.

From a third-class city teeming with syndicates and squatters, Naga City was eventually restored to a first-class city teeming with businesses and civic-minded citizens.

His urban poor program, Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partner in Progress), was hailed as one of the Best Practices for Human Settlements by Habitat for Humanity. The city piled on so many awards in the Asian Institute of Management’s Galing Pook Awards that, it was eventually elevated to the Hall of Fame. In 1999, Naga was cited by Asiaweek as one of the “Most Improved Cities in Asia.”

In 2004, the city’s I-Governance program was chosen as one of the Global 107 Best Practices at the Dubai International Awards. The city was also a recipient of the United Nations Public Service Awards for applying information and communications technology in governance.

I-­Governance is essentially about making the budget and all the services, contracts, transactions, revenue collection, as well as names of accountable officials and employees of the city available to the public.

The program was implemented either through the city’s website,, or through a directory of sorts that the city government published and gave away for free to all the households and establishments in Naga.

COMMON TOUCH. In a shirt, shorts, and trademark slippers, Jesse Robredo collects donations from the city for Ondoy victims. (Photo from Robredo's Facebook page)
People’s partner

Robredo himself said these accomplishments were not his alone. When this author asked him in 2006 what made his programs so successful, he responded, “You haven’t written about the people of Naga.”

His role, he said, is to come up with an idea and make his constituents realize they have a stake in issues he wanted to address, services he wanted to improve, and sectors he wanted to reform. Then they pick up — and keep the program going. Essentially, he said, he couldn’t have done it if the Nagueños were not willing partners.

While the nation continues to grapple with how to allow people to participate in policymaking, Naga City and Robredo went ahead and set up the People’s Council, which included representatives of basic sectors and legitimate nongovernment organizations.

In effect, the measure gave citizens a direct hand in local decision-making for, while they did not vote directly, they took part in the deliberation, conceptualization, implementation, and evaluation of programs and projects.

The People’s Council demonstrated that it actually makes a local chief executive’s life more difficult, even halting the execution of some projects. That Naga’s own People’s Council was able to do so only indicated its success in developing participatory democracy, Sulpicio Roco, who succeeded Robredo as mayor in 1998, told Asiaweek

Returning the favor

The Nagueños appreciated the reforms. For succeeding elections since 1988, they not only voted for Robredo, they supported candidates he endorsed and responded to his rallying call, “Ubos kung ubos, gabos kung gabos,” which essentially meant voting not just for him, but for his entire slate.

In 1998, after his third term, they also voted straight for the team he endorsed, then led by Sulpicio, brother of former Sen Raul Roco.

When Robredo came back in 2001 after taking his Masters degree in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, Nagueños voted him back into office. He held the position for 3 straight terms until 2010.  

Bitter enemy

Robredo however had his share of critics.

His first bid for Naga City mayor was bankrolled by his uncle, then Gov Luis Robredo Villafuerte of Camarines Sur.

But the relationship with Villafuerte turned sour soon after Robredo became mayor of Naga. Robredo told this writer he broke away when the old man started sending him documents to sign, treating him like a rubber stamp. “I am not comfortable with provincial politics,” he confessed.

A Princeton University case study written by Michael Scharff, published in July 2011, says Robredo discovered early during his first term that his uncle was associated with many of the illegal practices he sought to eradicate, including jueteng.

The Princeton study says a clear indication of how estranged the two had become was when Villafuerte tapped his sister Pura Luisa Villafuerte Magtuto to run against Robredo in the 1992 elections.

In 1992, Robredo joined Lakas-NUCD and supported the presidency of Fidel V Ramos. At the time, Villafuerte and then 2nd District Congressman Raul Roco (who was running for senator) supported Ramon Mitra and the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP). Roco’s brother Ramon happened to be Robredo’s rival when he first ran for mayor in 1988.

The Lakas-Laban coalition in 1995 provided the opportunity for the Robredo and Roco camps to merge forces. When Roco ran for president in 1998, Robredo was already one of his staunch supporters.

Meantime, the tiff with Villafuerte continued to serve as a virtual Damocles’ sword that hung over Robredo’s political career. His uncle made a number of determined efforts to get Robredo disqualified from public office — even going as far as denying blood relations.

Robredo’s grandfather was Chinese, the older Villafuerte said, who fooled his family into thinking that they were related.

NAGA CITY VISIT. Mayor Jesse Robredo shows then Senator Benigno Aquino III around the city during a visit in September 2009. (Photo from Robredo's Facebook account)

Going national

A close friend and ally of incumbent Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas III, Robredo joined the campaign team of then Sen Benigno Aquino III after Roxas agreed to slide down as vice president in the 2010 presidential elections.

Because of his stature, he was regarded as the ideal “conductor” of the Aquino machinery. He was supposed to run not just the conventional, but also the “non-conventional” campaign, dealing with political parties and traditional politicians, as well as with civil society.

Aquino would later say, after the elections, that they had disagreements over “management style.” The president, campaign insiders said, was unhappy with how Robredo packed his campaign schedule to the brim.

Suddenly, the multi-awarded mayor — who was deemed a shoo-in for the post of Interior and Local Government secretary — was no longer standing on solid ground. It didn’t help that former Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, who beat Roxas as vice-president, was also interested in the post.

Robredo was among the last to be named to Aquino’s Cabinet, appointed only on July 9, 2010 and even then, only in an acting capacity.

His authority as Local Government chief was also eroded when Aquino appointed a close friend, fellow gun enthusiast Rico Puno, as Undersecretary for Peace and Order. Puno, who was appointed on July 2 — a full week ahead of Robredo’s appointment — was designated in charge of the Philippine National Police (PNP), a crucial arm of the department.

The curious dynamics between Aquino, Puno, and Robredo came to the fore during the fateful Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking tragedy of Aug 23, 2010.

In the Senate investigations following the incident,  Robredo admitted he “was out of the loop” during the 12-hour crisis.

Puno, for his part, admitted he had “verbal instructions from the President to oversee the PNP,” as well as such crucial agencies as the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the Public Safety College, and the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime.

Days after the Quirino Grandstand hostage-taking incident, Aquino took responsibility for the debacle, admitting that when he offered the local government post to Robredo, he told him “to address concerns such as coming up with a comprehensive plan on delivering social services and relocating informal settlers in coordination with the local governments.” He admitted telling Robredo that he would retain direct supervision over the PNP.

Despite the President’s admission, critics latched on the Quirino Grandstand incident to further undermine Robredo’s tenure at the DILG.

Sen Francis Escudero, a member of the Commission on Appointments, said the arrangement should have been made public at the time Robredo was appointed, and not only after the crisis. He said the bloody outcome of the hostage crisis put Robredo’s competence in question.

But Robredo didn’t even have to face the Commission on Appointments (CA) until a year later, when Aquino finally relented and elevated him to full-fledged member of his Cabinet.

On June 13, 2011, Aquino finally signed Robredo’s ad interim appointment, paving the way for the submission of his name to the CA.

Until his ill-fated flight on Saturday, August 18, however, Robredo had yet to be confirmed. Before his flight to Cebu on Friday, August 17, he met with a national politician to discuss disaster risk reduction and his CA confirmation. It was among the few last acts he did as a politician.

He was supposed to come home to Naga, his comfort zone, to spend the long weekend with his family. He never made it.  –


*Some information used in this article was sourced from the case study written by Michael Scharff, entitled “Building Trust and promoting accountability: Jesse Robredo and Naga City, Philippines, 1988-1998,” which was published in the Innovations for Successful Societies website, Princeton University. The case study is republished here with permission from Princeton University.