Francis Zamora: After 50 years, San Juan gets a new captain

Janella Paris
Francis Zamora takes on the role of San Juan's chief executive, the city's new captain after 50 years under the Estrada clan. How will he change the game?

MANILA, Philippines – The ball is in Francis Zamora’s court. 

He is finally the mayor of San Juan. He had slain allies-turned-enemies: the Estrada clan that had run the city for 50 years until 2019.

Zamora’s win was not only a victory against Janella Estrada, who had been eyed to extend the line of succession which her grandfather, former president Joseph Estrada, started in San Juan. Zamora’s win, he himself said, was a victory against how things used to be done in the city. He promised a “new San Juan,” to end the culture that did not hold leaders and government workers accountable. 

He believes the Estradas – the patriarch, then son Jinggoy, then other son JV, then JV’s mother Guia – steered the city into stagnation. He says his victory last May proves that more San Juaneños see this now more than ever. 

But will this be his only legacy? What will the people of San Juan see in him?

The shadow of the Estradas

Undoing the impact of a 50-year dynasty cannot happen overnight, this much Zamora knows.  

San Juaneños had not known any other kind of leadership since 1969, when then 32-year-old Joseph Estrada became mayor. Since then no one has defeated the Estrada family in a mayoral race. The only other time a non-Estrada was at the helm of the city was in 2001, when former basketball star Philip Cezar served as acting mayor as Jinggoy faced plunder charges. 

After Erap and Jinggoy, the throne was passed on to the latter’s estranged half-brother JV Ejercito, whose mother Guia Gomez took over until she maxed out the 3-term limit by 2019.  

Jinggoy’s daughter Janella, vice mayor to Gomez from 2016 to 2019, was supposed to continue the line, but she lost with only 24,813 votes to Zamora’s 35,060 – over 10,000 votes apart. This was a far cry from the tight race between Gomez and Zamora in 2016, which Zamora attempted to protest but eventually lost. 

LOSING STRONGHOLDS. Former president Joseph "Erap" Estrada loses the Manila mayoral race, while granddaughter Janella Ejercito Estrada loses the San Juan mayoral race.

Zamora believes the family’s own in-fighting caused their downfall. He said all of San Juan knows they had not been united for a while. During the May elections, there were San Juan residents who supported Janella for mayor and JV for Senate reelection but did not back Joseph Estrada’s reelection as mayor of Manila and the bid of the disgraced, plunder-accused Jinggoy to return to the Senate. 

It could also be a case of a dynasty over-stretching: the Estradas could have overstayed their 50-year welcome, and people were looking for something new.

But after 100 days in office, Zamora said the reasons for the Estradas’ downfall do not matter as much to him. What matters is the mess they left behind, and how he and his administration would clean it up.

“I had inklings already before, but before I didn’t have access to documents. I only had limited authority then,” Zamora said in a Rappler Talk interview

“But now I’ve been elected as mayor, I have a chance to correct wrongdoings, and to clean up the local government of San Juan. This is a very good opportunity to change San Juan. I believe that’s the reason why people voted for me,” he added.

Getting to work

Zamora’s first order of business was to make governance in the city more transparent. 

He signed Executive Order (EO) No. 1 after uncovering documents showing questionable transactions done by the previous administration. With the EO, Zamora wants to institutionalize a pre-audit system in all transactions of city departments. He wants it to be “a reminder that all employees, job order or permanent, need to follow the rules set by the Civil Service Commission” so they can serve San Juaneños better. (READ: IN NUMBERS: Francis Zamora’s first 100 days as San Juan mayor)

 TRANSPARENCY. San Juan City Mayor Francis Zamora's first executive order aims for more transparency in the city's expenses. Photo by Ralf Rivas/Rappler

One example, he said, was the rental of the San Juan Gym. Zamora said that in his first 3 months, the city government had been able to collect rental fees amounting to P650,000. For the entirety of 2017 under the previous administration of Guia Gomez, however, they only apparently collected P200,000. 

Another thing he told Rappler and later on his constituents during his first State of the City Address about was the previous administration’s purchase of a P40-million spider excavator. “It’s been used 0 times. It’s just parked here because it can’t fit our waterways, and it can’t be deployed to the creek and the river because there’s no way to actually bring it down,” he said. They are still figuring out what to do with it, he said.

His administration is also facing a problem at San Juan Medical Center, the city’s public hospital. The previous administration left the hospital’s P500-million renovation project unfinished. It stands now at 60%, according to Zamora, but the contractor insists it is already 85% complete. Aside from the unfinished renovation, P137 million worth of unopened and untested medical equipment also sit in the hospital’s storage area.  

He recently appointed an ex-military doctor to be the hospital’s medical director. He did this to “instill order and discipline” in the city’s healthcare delivery system. But he said they could only do so much until the renovation is done. “We don’t have a full laboratory, we don’t have a dialysis center, we don’t have rehabilitation centers, our operating room is in bad shape,” he lamented. 

He attributes the sorry state in which he inherited these things to complacency. “Probably they got used to the old system, and now that we’ve come, I really want them to realize that things will not be the same as before, that we’ll run San Juan transparently,” he said. 

He shared that a number of department heads have resigned, including two from the income-generating ones that left behind nearly P1 billion in debt and  P736 million worth of undercollected business taxes when Gomez’s term ended. 

He said many heads had been resigning from July until September, but did not say how many. “Those who have resigned and will still be resigning, they’re free to go,” he said. “What I really try to instil is the fact that we are here to serve the people, regardless of political affiliation.”

Zamora had a problem with political affiliations – particularly in the city council – on his first week in office. 

Eight of the city’s 12 councilors did not show up to a special session called by Zamora on July 16. He had called for it to discuss his authority to sign the checks for the salary of city hall employees and the chairmanship of the appropriations committee.

The 8 councilors, known Estrada allies who had dubbed themselves the #Strong8, later told reporters they could not stomach how Zamora wanted to meddle with the city legislature. They promised to be a fair majority opposition and called on the new mayor to respect the separation of powers.

Months later, Zamora has the majority in the council. But it took a lot of meetings in and beyond Vice Mayor Warren Villa’s office for 3 of the 8 to finally join the captain’s team.

Villa, Zamora’s running mate and friend since the new mayor’s city council days, told Rappler he had been playing the role of mediator for the past 100 days, organizing dinners and sit-downs between opposition councilors and the mayor’s team to make sure their goals are aligned.

He said the day after the #Strong8’s non-appearance at the special session, he immediately received text messages from some of them, apologizing. “Tinanong ko sila, ‘Tutulungan ba kayo ng nag-utos sa inyong mag-walk out?” Villa said, hinting at the remnants of Estrada influence in the city council. (I asked them, “Will that camp who ordered you to walk out help you now?”)

The following day, may nag-sorry. Tapos 3 na silang lumipat (The next day, some said sorry. Then 3 of them came over to our side),” Villa said. They had flipped the council, giving Zamora the majority of 9 to the opposition’s 5. 

The opposition councilors do not attend Monday flag-raising ceremonies at the city hall atrium, Villa said. They also did not attend sessions during the city council’s training on executive-legislative agenda from September 23 to 26 in Baguio City. Villa said these were whims of local politics. “Maaga pa lang, nakikipagsabong na sila sa mayor,” Villa said. (It’s too early in the term for them to be butting heads with the mayor.)

Still, as he sees his role as a mediator, he is hoping for better relations with the #Strong8-turned-minority going forward. They might have the votes, Villa said, but the council needs to be on the same page if they are to serve the people.

Banking on youth 

At 41, Zamora was hailed as one of 2019’s new, young mayors, toppling dynasties in the wake of their victories. He stands alongside Manila’s Isko Moreno, who dethroned former president Estrada as mayor of Manila, and Vico Sotto, who ended the almost-3decade reign of the Eusebios in Pasig City.

But Zamora is not the only one who carries the surname in San Juan politics. There is his father, longtime congressman Ronaldo Zamora. The elder Zamora has been in politics since 1978. He’s a longtime legislator in the lower house, once  amember of Marcos’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, executive secretary to former ally Erap when the latter was president. 

Asked how he can assure that there will be no Zamora dynasty in San Juan, the new mayor said: “[After this term, my dad] will definitely retire, so I will just be alone. Hopefully, I will be entering my second term and, hopefully, a third term. But my dad will also be retiring.”

It was the elder Zamora who gave Francis the blessing to seek an elected post in the city in 2007. He is in almost every tarpaulin of groundbreaking ceremonies, seminars, job fairs, that Francis is in. How will Francis set himself apart? 

According to Maria Ela Atienza of the University of the Philippines Diliman Political Science Department, Zamora embodies a kind of political persona that banks on his youth and his being educated to appeal to constituents.  

“He appears like a learned leader. With his educational background, he’s able to present a more modern kind of thinking,” she said.  

After his career in basketball and his stints in business, Zamora took up a Masters for Public Administration at the National College of Public Administration and Governance in UP, already gearing up for a run for public office. 

CLEARING. To lead the example PNP Chief Police General Oscar Albayalde, NCRPO Chief Guillermo Elleazar along with San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora on July 30, 2019, demolish Community Precinct structures at West Crame in San Juan City per president order to reclaim sidewalks for pedestrians. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Atienza also said Zamora also appears in touch with the sentiments of the people. 

During his first 100 days, Zamora focused not only on President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to clear roads, but also on promising better healthcare and afforable housing to the city’s poorest. 

His administration is pursuing public-private partnerships to improve the state of the city’s public hospital. While he has no deadline for the hospital’s full rehabilitation, he said the city government has made agreements with private hospitals to cater to San Jueneños seeking medical help. 

He is also proud of what he has dubbed as San Juan’s own “condo for the poor.” A 1,850-square meter lot owned by the city government and located in Barangay St Joseph will be used for a 22-floor high-rise public housing – the first of its kind in the country. Zamora said it would have 396 units, each with an average size of 29 square meters. The building will also have a multi-purpose hall and 10 commercial space units.

Units will be rent-to-own, said Zamora, who promised reasonable amortization for prospective residents. Ideally, they would own the property in 25 years. 

Atienza said Zamora would need to balance projects and policies like these and “convincing San Juaneños who are less poor” to buy into his governance. Though the smallest city in Metro Manila, San Juan is a first class city and business hub. 

“San Juan is a city, but it does have remnants of a small town [given its population and geographic size],” Atienza said. “Zamora will need to capitalize on that.”  

Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: NEW CAPTAIN. Francis Zamora takes on the role of San Juan’s chief executive, the city’s new captain after 50 years. Photo from the San Juan City Mayor’s Office