Jesse Robredo: ‘If I were President…’

Miriam Grace A. Go

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Jesse Robredo: ‘If I were President…’
'I will drastically change the allocation of government resources to favor local governments. I will make LGU leaders accountable to their constituents in a measurable way'
Rappler file photo

It was initially ironic, in the eyes of some fellow journalists, that I couldn’t immediately type away a tribute to Jesse Robredo.

I practically grew up with him professionally. He was head of the League of Cities at the time the Local Government Code was up for a first review since its enactment. I was a newspaper reporter urged by my editors to keep an eye on this sector that had started pushing for more powers, autonomy, and resources from the national government.

The coverage evolved into conversations over the years. Local governance was our common passion; good administration, both our ideal. Politics was a reality we both grappled with whenever I asked the practical, at times awkward, questions. Campaigns and elections were a most absurd necessity we often afforded to laugh about only when they were over.

Face to face, voice calls, text messages—he would answer; he had answers. Truthful. Realistic. Sometimes pragmatic. But always—always—giving you the feeling that it’s alright, even this once, to shed off a bit of your cynicism; that it’s not strange if you wrap up an interview feeling a bit hopeful for this country, or for the countryside at least.

He was pleased, I can tell you, when a journalist wanted to talk about good governance—not just in terms of vague academic concepts, but how it’s introduced to a society so used to traditional politics; how it’s funded in a perennially financially-challenged government; how it’s sustained when the dirty toes you inevitably step on would, by reflex, kick back to frustrate your efforts.

If only time permitted, he would talk endlessly. Reporters would tell you, he knew an intent student when he was talking to one. He respected an interviewer who knew what to ask. He recognized it when you really came for answers, and not just to perfunctorily get a quote.

Whenever he said, “O meron pa?” or “Okay na tayo?” it didn’t mean he was trying to cut short the interview. He was telling you, “If you have more questions, I’d be willing to answer them until I’ve helped you understand this issue.”

And how he made time. During his first term after Harvard, I remember texting him at his two numbers early in the morning to request an interview by phone. I had forgotten that a storm had just hit Bicol, and the hours that passed without any reply from him made me forget that I had even texted him. Around 9 pm, he was returning the call: “Nasa bundok kasi kami maghapon, kabababa lang, nag-check kami sa mga kababayan nating binagyo.”

Another time, in 2006, I was on a tight deadline and needed a sit-down interview with him anytime he would be in Manila. He replied late in the evening when he arrived in San Juan, where he used to sleep over at his sister’s house, and promised to squeeze me into his packed schedule the following day.

The window turned out to be at 7 am, at Greenwich at the Greenhills Shopping Center. I came 20 minutes before schedule, because I had this sense that he was the type who would arrive earlier than call time, so to speak. True enough, he came at 6:50, apologetic that he made me wait and that he set the interview perhaps too early in the day.

But he didn’t have—and I didn’t want him—to apologize. Over my convenience as a journalist, I would choose anytime to honor the man’s far nobler commitment—that of finishing his business every time he’s in Manila within as short a time as possible, so he could immediately go home to his family and his constituents in Naga.

Letting things slide

I was affected by his death, my friends realized, as we sat in the conference room last Friday and the rest of the newsroom was busy with updates on his wake in Malacañang. Quickly, one’s “DILG Queen, bakit di ka nagsusulat?” changed to “Wala na ang tatay mo…” (We often referred to close and regular sources in terms of family members.)

Umiyak ka ba, Miss Gigi?” asked another. I did, as soon as I knew from the initial details of the crash that only a miracle would render him alive.

The next day, while I still hoped for a miracle for Mayor Jesse (I never got to progress to calling him “Secretary”), my prayers already focused on his family. This was a family that was raised to be unaffected by the trappings of influence and power, shielded from material comfort and bragging rights that connection to city hall could’ve afforded them. I thought, we were only missing a good public servant; Attorney Leni, Aika, Patricia, and Jillian were losing their devoted family man.

By Monday night, the 20th, my prayer was for his body to at least be recovered—that would be a big help in the family’s healing. In the morning of Tuesday, I got a text message that his remains were found. I felt numb, took hours to tweet a prayer for the family, and decided to shut out any more news for the day.

I was afraid I’d come across some politicians who would tell us what a big loss Mayor Jesse’s death would be to our quest for good and transparent governance. They who made themselves scarce when he needed firm and unequivocal support to automatically bag the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) appointment, be confirmed right away, and get to exercise full authority over the entire department and its attached agencies.

Or I might see some local officials extolling him for Naga’s best practices that could be widely replicated across the country. They who, instead of instinctively and collectively welcoming the first time a former local official would be at the helm of the DILG, were telling journalists without attribution, “Ano ba naman ’yung Naga, eh maliit lang ’yun?”

Or I might sense the hand of some political tacticians shoving their clients closer so they could be deodorized by any association with Mayor Jesse. They who used to brand him haughty every time he said honest and efficient management of public affairs was possible if the leader really wanted it.

Or I might hear some folks saying he would’ve been the best president or senator we could have had. They who, I’m sure, mostly didn’t appreciate what he was doing, because the last time his name was floated in surveys, only 0.8% intended to vote him to the Senate. 

Then I would’ve turned into the nasty version of myself toward these bandwagoners. And Mayor Jesse—I could imagine if I brought up such issues in our conversations—would’ve chuckled to say, “I get your point,” acknowledged that some of my observations were valid, and gone on to try to make me broaden my perspective.

He would say, there are things you let slide or learn to live with, as long as your core principles remain intact, because there are things you had set out to accomplish.

One car, by installment

But, tell me, Mayor Jesse, did you really think most of these pampered politicians understood “modest” when they expressed admiration for your family’s way of life?

The Robredos have lived in a sort of a townhouse, without a lawn or hall for people’s day gatherings that’s staple in local politicians’ residences. (To keep people from lining up outside his house for various concerns, Mayor Jesse would have early breakfast and head for city hall before office hours.)

They didn’t have many cars; in fact, they only had one at a time, at least before he became a Cabinet member. I remember him proudly recounting years ago how he sold his old car so he could get a Mercedes van that’s big enough for the whole family—he was paying for it by installment over 5 years.

Before the era of budget airfares, he rarely traveled to Manila by plane, even if he was on official business—he didn’t want to strain the city government’s budget, so he preferred to travel by land.

On the day his plane crashed and his two older daughters were rushing home to Naga to be with their mother and youngest sister, I realized nothing had changed. The girls were taking the bus from Manila and were expected to arrive at the province by 4 am the following day yet.

Hindi tayo makakapagsalita para sa iba, ayaw nating magkumpara,” I could almost predict Mayor Jesse would say. And then he would tell you he’s just raising his family the way his parents did—no sense of entitlement, enjoying only what you worked hard for, making a difference wherever you find yourself in, giving back because life has been good to you.

Okay, sir, but we both know that the politics of these so-called allies are not as straight as yours, right?

And Mayor Jesse would say: Maybe, but by standing by your principles, you would’ve earned their respect, and they wouldn’t attempt to ask you to compromise. 

In 1998, a presidential election year, I snuck into a closed-door meeting of Lakas, where they appealed to local candidates not to junk standard-bearer Joe de Venecia (JDV). The politicians were called to a room, by region, and were given big envelopes. Mayor Jesse was among the first, if not the first, to leave the place.

What did you get in the envelope? I asked him the following day. Posters, campaign paraphernalia for distribution, he said. Uh-oh, the other politicians got campaign funds—some even complaining how one got more than the others. And there went the newsroom joke, “Nabukulan si Robredo.”

He didn’t mind. Maybe he expected it. Early on in the campaign, he made clear to party officials that, being Bicolano—and, I’m sure, because he subscribed to the same brand of politics—he was going to support the presidential bid of Raul Roco, De Venecia’s opponent.

The arrangement he proposed, because he still officially belonged to Lakas, was that, even if he wouldn’t endorse JDV, he would make all the necessary preparations for the sorties that the Lakas candidates planned in his area.

If he were any other party member, I was pretty sure the Lakas leadership would’ve subjected him to disciplinary action. But then, this was somebody whom they never caught saying one thing and doing another, so they let him be.

‘If I were President…’

During the 2010 campaign, when Mayor Jesse was minding Noynoy Aquino’s networking with local officials, I was tempted to ask him: How can you stand this candidate who, when asked about local government issues, had nothing to say but, “Pag-aaralan ho natin ’yan”?

But I didn’t want to dampen his hopes. The Liberal Party, to which he now belonged, had assured him of the DILG portfolio if Noynoy won. And I was sure he wasn’t after it for the clout or the fame. Genuinely, he wanted to be in a position to introduce—even impose in a subtle, perfectly legal, way—good, transparent, efficient administration in local governments across the country.

I didn’t even think it was some conscious “I’ll prove that the Naga way is possible anywhere else” effort; he just wanted this chance to do good on a larger scale the way he knew best.

In April 2006, Newsbreak asked him to complete this sentence: “If I were President…” He replied, almost instantly that you knew he had thought this over before: “I will drastically change the allocation of government resources to favor local governments. I will make LGU leaders accountable to their constituents in a measurable way.”

That last part, he was able to do as DILG chief. I remember him stressing that any program, any platform, had to have “clear milestones” because they would give your constituents, your clientele, a sense of security where all these efforts were going. Like in a campaign, he said, “We didn’t just say we would address the flooding problem. We identified which streets we would fix when.”

I realized how single-minded he had become about this whole thing. He stood pat even when the President insulted him with this illegal move of limiting his authority to just the local government half of the department, and reserving the interior half for Noynoy’s shooting buddy. Because there were bigger things that just had to be done.

Clamor for Leni: A replay

The political significance of the date when his body was found wasn’t lost on me. As soon as I got the text in the morning of August 21, I started to fear that people, either overwhelmed by their love for Mayor Jesse or desperate to clinch an elusive additional senatorial seat for the ruling party, would egg on Mrs Robredo to run for the Senate.

Which crafty political strategist wouldn’t be itching to point out, and exploit, the parallelisms? Twenty-nine years ago, Ninoy Aquino, hero, died August 21. Sympathetic public swept his widow to the presidency. (Bonus, bonus, their son is now president, too!) That widow president gave Jesse his break in government when he was 29 years old. He was confirmed dead last August 21. Now, as I was starting to write this piece, news was being tweeted: “Leni Robredo for senator? Why not?”

Clamor to run for public office is not something new to Attorney Leni. The first time Mayor Jesse reached his term limit in 1998, supporters were afraid that the reforms he instituted in Naga would be undone if somebody not him would take over city hall. They wanted his wife.

She refused—instantly, firmly. The position, the Robredos believed, was not something up to be inherited; they didn’t have a monopoly on it. Leni gave her services pro bono to Nagueños as her way of supporting her husband’s administration. If he were not mayor, Jesse said, Attorney Leni would’ve pursued a career apart from his very public job. 

So Mayor Jesse’s drawing power—his vote share averaged at 80% every election—was instead thrown behind local party mates in the 2 times he reached his term limit, in 1998 and in 2010.

I don’t know if anything has changed since that merienda that a friend and I had with Mayor Jesse in 2009 at Chocolate Kiss on Roces. Explaining why Attorney Leni wasn’t going to be coaxed into seeking electoral office, he said: “May sariling buhay ang misis ko. Hindi ’yan asawa lang ng mayor. Alam niya ang gusto niyang gawin.”

On that note, he would’ve put an end to all these trial balloons today and asked us: “O meron pa? Okay na tayo?”

And I would’ve answered, I think that would be all, sir. #SalamatJesse. –

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Miriam Grace A. Go

Miriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.