First 100 Days: In Manila, Isko Moreno finds his most challenging role

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A crisis hit Isko Moreno’s schedule before midday that Monday, September 23. A building has collapsed, and two men are missing. Lights, camera, action.

He was being paid a courtesy call by pastors, but the conversation about God had to be cut at an unexpectedly ungodly time. He bowed for their prayers, and, with his entourage of aides, ran to his mayoral car – a shining white SUV with inch-thick windows.

People had spilled to the streets when he arrived, sweating under a clear sky. They attempted to snatch details where the sound of a tsunami of rocks earlier came from: a Hotel Sogo undergoing demolition, covered in green nets, its facade intact, while the rest had been reduced to rubble.

Cops, medics, and firemen told him the situation didn’t look promising, and he strode to an Angel’s Pizza store, one of the few restaurants open, and asked the staff to close off the store for the day.

“This will be our command center,” he said, telling the police, fire, and hospital officials to huddle over plastic chairs and tables.

When he came out of the make-shift base, he refused to grant interviews to reporters for the first time. They were trying to save lives, he said. He didn’t have time.

By the end of the afternoon, two construction workers were pulled from the mountain of cement, dead.

LOOK: Inside the Sogo Hotel under demolition which prematurely collapsed this morning. Photo from @ManilaPIO pic.twitter.com/Brwho2myrJ — Rambo Talabong (@ramboreports) September 23, 2019

But the mayor couldn’t allow a sad ending. His voice breaking after announcing the deaths, Moreno ordered aid for the bereaved families, and directed the city engineering office to review demolition works with the assurance that the city wouldn’t lose more of its men to its ruins. And cut!

In the capital, every day is a story, and so far, it has starred and has been directed by the one-man show that is Isko Moreno. 

His victory over political goliath Joseph Estrada gripped the nation’s attention, propelling him to unprecedented stardom. He uses that newfound celebrity for the city's good. He has been keeping a dizzying schedule on a daily basis, packed with meetings, speaking engagements, and inspections all fit for broadcast on his Facebook page.

But in Moreno’s first 100 days as mayor, he has seen that managing a city requires more than just the showmanship he has masterfully executed in his campaign. There are body counts to work with, and buildings do not crumble on their own. And there was a system, an oversight of a government that he now leads that has allowed it to happen. The mayor has to act.

"The City of Manila is really challenging. There is tyranny all over, and a certain level of anarchy in our streets and some agencies, chaos, and a lot of disorder," Moreno said in a Rappler Talk interview.

Isko’s many lives 

Want to know where Isko Moreno is? Just open his Facebook page. He's always live.

His Facebook live videos have become his main connection to his constituents. It even paints his schedule more accurately than the advisories released by his public information team the day before, as he often goes on inspections unannounced, and then cancels his attendance to events when he feels the need to be in an urgent operation, say, the dismantling of a gambling den.

Rappler charts his broadcasts – all 263 of them – ever since he assumed office on June 30 up to October 7. The statistics show the mayor’s priorities in his first 100 days.

Moreno has gone live for a total of 10,706 minutes. Half of the time, he stays inside the city hall, and half of the time, he’s out. Each broadcast on average is 40 minutes long, with the shortest live clip just 10 seconds for a prayover, and the longest live marathon 225 minutes during the Hotel Sogo fall.

Including weekends, Moreno on average goes live two to three times a day.

The two activities with the most broadcast minutes were both done outside his office: speaking engagements with 2,424 minutes, and inspections with 1,863 minutes.

These are then followed with activities held inside the city hall: city programs with 1,507 minutes, meetings with 1,474 minutes, and his weekly The Capital Report program, which totals to 1,174 minutes.

As expected, most of his broadcasts are within workday hours. But he also went live at night frequently, with 28 evening broadcasts, and 21 late-night broadcasts. His latest live video was up at 1:49 am on September 16 to announce to the public personally that there were no classes in the morning.

He has also gone live 13 times even before office hours – as early as 4:13 am, for example, for a random inspection on October 6.

Moreno’s live broadcasts have at times gone beyond the normal ambit of officials, as he also went live for 4 minutes on August 13 during a tooth operation. On July 20 at 11 pm, he spent 24 minutes telling Manileños where to watch the Pacquiao-Thurman boxing bout the next day.

The broadcasts are all in accordance with his first executive order: that Manila will have an open government, which to him includes self-imposed surveillance.

Milking the Iskomania

That Moreno spent most of his time in speaking engagements is not surprising. When he steps into a room, he knows everyone looks and falls in line for a selfie. When he speaks, he knows everyone listens.

Some have called it Iskomania.

When President Rodrigo Duterte said he was impressed with Moreno, he first praised him for his charisma, saying that he watches Moreno's speeches.

Ito, lesson learned ko talaga, meron kaming ginagawa with regard to our communication: to change the mindset. Tingin ko lang, ha? Kasi mura eh, libre. Kasi laway lang ang puhunan,” Moreno said in a Rappler Talk interview.

(This is what I really learned, and it’s what we’ve been doing with our communication: to change the mindset. I think this is the right approach. It’s cheap, and it’s free. My mouth is my capital.)

There’s a certain method of choosing which speaking invitations Moreno accepts. He prioritizes Manila-based organizations, and business and professional organizations.

He has spoken to business organizations such as the Philippine Chamber of Commerce & Industry, IT and business process association forum, the Catholic business forum, the Foundation for Economic Freedom, GoNegosyo forum, and the Metrobank Foundation. These do not include his meetings with the country’s tycoons.

He also delivered speeches to influential organizations, such as the Philippine Judges Association National Convention, the International College of Surgeons, the Rotary Club, and Junior Chamber International.

On average, he speaks for 63 minutes per engagement, and with 41 delivered, he has mastered the delivery of his invitation for the audience to hope in Manila again. He begins by lamenting how the capital has fallen over the past administrations.

Moreno usually uses the word “chaotic” and “dugyot (dirty)”, then shifts to describing it simply as “sleeping” and “napabayaan (neglected).” Then comes the invitation to help him in his commitment to restore their crumbling city to its old glory.

“I want to do a lot of things, but I cannot do it alone. We cannot do it alone,” Moreno has repeatedly said in his speeches.

Moreno is not a detail-oriented speaker. When he speaks to businesses, he only talks of having “incentives” for them to set up in the capital. When it comes to Manila’s debt, he does not give a point-by-point presentation on how to diminish their P4.4-billion account. Once in a forum, he was asked what Manileños could do to beat traffic, he only said, “It’s a fact of life.” 

Yet these speeches have produced tangible results.

The returns come in the form of donations and partnerships, most notably with top fast-food chains agreeing to employ senior citizens in Manila. Meanwhile, the Manila Lions Club donated 120 wheelchairs, and the Inner Wheel Club of Rizal turned over 300 bottles of dextrose for Manila’s hospitals.

His meetings with the country’s wealthiest, he said, resulted in commitments for donations and even promises to set up business headquarters in the capital. Pressed to disclose more information, he said: “Ayaw ko silang pangunahanMaghintay lang kayo at mag-abang.” (I don’t want to pre-empt their commitment. Just wait and see.)

An outdoor mayor

On his first full day as mayor, Isko Moreno went on overtime.

At 6 pm on July 1, he walked out of the City Hall across the Bonifacio Monument and toward mountains of garbage. Dubbing the historic area as having deteriorated into a “new Smokey Mountain” – in reference to the actual garbage dump in Tondo – he ordered that the monument be cleared within the day.

“Kung hindi natin kayang linisin ang sarili nating bakuran, ano pa kaya ang Maynila?” Moreno said. (If we cannot clean our own backyard, then how else can we fix the entire Manila?)

Since then, he has led at least 45 inspections around the capital, taking around 42 minutes each. The earliest started at 4:13 am, and the latest began at 12:28 am, prompting people to ask, “How does Isko Moreno sleep?

Mahilig talaga siya sa aksyon (He really likes action),” said Cesar Chavez, Moreno’s chief-of-staff, who tags along on his inspections.

Prior to President Duterte's order for mayors to clear the roads across the country, Moreno had already conducted at least 16 inspections. Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año described him as a “model mayor” in an interview with Rappler.

“He’s a man of action and conviction. Kung ang mga mayors ay gagayahin si Mayor Isko, for sure, wala silang problema sa elections,” Año said on September 17. (If mayors can copy Mayor Isko, for sure, they wouldn’t have a problem in the next elections.)

The Bonifacio Monument – where during his first week as mayor he spotted scattered human feces and plastic cups brimming with piss – is now water-blasted and swept clean, repainted, and lit by lamps hanging from trees.

True to his statement upon assumption, he has cleaned his own backyard. He struggles with the rest of the vast city.

He followed the President’s orders to take down all road obstructions, even the livelihood of thousands of street vendors who had made a living in those areas for generations.

While the roads are clean, Moreno now has thousands of constituents jobless and starving – a problem that would force the mobile mayor to sit down with his city council.

Moreno's silent majority

At the flag-raising ceremony on September 21, a frustrated Moreno announced to reporters that he had ordered the council to abolish the Manila Tricycle Regulatory Office.

He said he had been fed up with the office’s corruption, and abolition was the only way.

Although they knew in advance, the council still needed to study whether it was doable. The office had 51 plantilla positions, posts that were occupied by employees whose work was protected by laws. With an order, Moreno ordered for them to be jobless. It was just another day for the city council.

Sanay na kami kay mayor,” said Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna in an interview with Rappler. (We’re used to the mayor already.)

While Moreno stands out as the ever-visible figurehead, it’s the city council that has been working silently to pass his dream policies and sweeping orders. Even Moreno’s meetings with them are not broadcast live, but they have been meeting at least twice a week, walking one by one in barongs and knee-length dresses into Moreno’s office in City Hall.

Most recognizable of them is their presider, Vice Mayor Lacuna, the woman who wears her ash-grey hair in a pixie cut, her look complemented by her lips painted blood-red.

Lacuna is Moreno’s longtime ally, and the daughter of his political counselor, longtime Manila vice mayor Danny Lacuna. Behind closed doors, he simply calls her his "ate" – his big sister whom he trusts to watch over the council.

Just like the office of the mayor, the council has been on overdrive.

“It’s been a whirlwind romance,” Lacuna said.

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Lacuna described the current council as “revived” under Moreno. She worked as the vice mayor under Estrada too, and recalled the council as a rubberstamp for the former president and dethroned patriarch.

Staffers Rappler spoke to described councilors under the Estrada administration as frequently walking in late and skipping sessions when a drizzle aggravates traffic.

Lacuna recalled Moreno’s first order after they were proclaimed winners in the 2019 elections: “Ate, gusto ko walang a-absent sa council.” (Big Sister, I don't want absentee councilors.)

Under Moreno, the council has been forced to work the same odd hours, ready just in case the mayor makes sweeping policy statements that need the backing of local laws, like his welfare programs and tax amnesties. Within 100 days, they have passed 8 ordinances.

“If he’s working with his 110%, then we are expected to do the same,” Lacuna added.

A frustrated director

During his break time, Moreno finds solace with a lit cigarette in a room adjacent to his office. It has a long wooden rectangle table, where, according to Vice Mayor Lacuna, he is visited by councilors and Lacuna herself to listen to his frustrations.

He talks of the capital as an overwhelming feat for one man.

Madaling ma-frustrate si Mayor kapagka hindi nangyayari the way he wants it na mangyari. Napu-frustrate siya doon,” Lacuna said. (He gets easily frustrated when things don't go the way he wants.)

Sometimes he wonders why illegal vendors continue to return to the areas they were driven away from. At other times, he blows off steam about offices where corruption persists despite his weekly address about public service means.

According to University of the Philippines Political Science Department chair Maria Ela Atienza, Moreno’s frustrations can be traced back to his obsession to be hands-on with his programs.

“He still has the sense that he has to do it every day. Of course, he has a lot of plans he has to do, but he has to pace it. He cannot do everything by himself,” Atienza said.

Moreno should consider delegating more of his tasks to his deputies, according to Atienza. This would have lasting returns. When he shares the spotlight, he would have enough stars to handle the show in case he moves up to higher office. And he has been approached by many parties for their 2022 ambitions.

“All the success of Manila now depends on him, which is not good. It’s not sustainable. It’s also not fair, because he cannot do all this by himself. He already has a core group. He can begin grooming them,” Atienza said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Is the mayor going through burnout? Without hesitation, he reiterates where he came from.

“Burnout? Hindi siguro. Alam mo kung bakit? Mas mahirap magtulak ng kariton, mas mahirap mag-drive ng sidecar,” Moreno said. (I don’t think so. You know why? It’s harder to push a cart, and to drive a sidecar.)

He added: “After those two decades of me being on the fence and watching somebody leading the city, then we ended up where we are today, I think if I’m going to follow the same footsteps, no new things will come to Manila tomorrow. So I have to do things differently.”

 – Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: NEW ROLE. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, dubbed as a 'model mayor,' is frustrated by the capital's overwhelming problems. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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