How do we mourn the passing of Jesse Robredo? Let us, for a start, recall his words. For in a stellar career in government that spanned more than 25 years, ending with the ill-fated plane flight on Saturday that felled him and left his family and the nation grieving and orphaned, Robredo had the opportunity to say much—and what he said invariably marked him as a special kind of public servant.
“Power has a way of changing people,” he once said. “A politician should never forget that when he started, he had big hopes for his constituents and he had clear motives that he worked hard for. He should still be the same individual when he finishes his term.”
It is a measure of how much Robredo lived by his personal dictum that when news first filled the airwaves and the social media about the crash of the plane that was carrying him home to his beloved Naga, the public’s first instinct was to pray that this man, along with the two pilots, be found safe. He might have risen to head the Department of Interior and Local Government, one of the most powerful positions in the land, but now people remember what made him different from his peers in the government: Up to the day he died he remained the same decent, modest, but visionary man who first energized the face of Philippine public service back in 1986.
At that time, at 29, he had become the country’s youngest city mayor, but with the heaviest of burdens. Naga was in the doldrums, bankrupt, rudderless and relegated to third-class status. “Given the circumstances at that time, almost no one believed us when we said that Naga would reclaim its reputation as the premier city of Bicol before the end of my first term in 1992,” he said.
With Robredo’s game-changing stewardship, Naga not only rebuilt itself; it also did so in a spectacular way, becoming one of the best-managed and most-awarded local governments in the country (Asiaweek magazine cited it in 1999 as one of Asia’s Most Improved Cities). The mayor would collect over 140 regional, national and international awards for his city’s near-miraculous revival, culminating in the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service.
How did he do it? By what Robredo called “participative visioning,” through which he inspired people to believe in government again—that it could be a force for good in their lives, but only if they, too, cared enough to fight for their stake in it. Along with big-ticket improvements in education, public health, peace and order and the like, Robredo employed symbolism to emphasize the point that, under his watch, a new era had dawned at City Hall. He joined city residents in sweeping debris off the streets after a typhoon. He biked around town to inspect projects and places that needed improvement. He institutionalized the participation of nongovernment organizations and people’s assemblies in local government, by letting their voices be heard on important deliberations. And he led by example—working long hours, dressing casually, eschewing bodyguards.
It was a work ethic he carried over to the DILG, where, at the time of his death, Robredo was in the midst of implementing reforms in such areas as local financial transparency, disaster preparedness and business-licensing processes. “It’s not enough for a government official to be good,” he insisted. “The system or the institution has to force him to be good.” For him, competence alone, or plain rectitude, was inadequate: “Hindi lahat ng matino ay mahusay, at lalo namang hindi lahat ng mahusay ay matino. Ang dapat ay matino at mahusay upang karapatdapat tayong pagkatiwalaan ng pera ng bayan.”
At the end of his much-praised terms as mayor, when he could have easily sought and won higher office, Robredo instead withdrew from politics, fielding neither his wife nor another surrogate to hold his seat until he could claim it again. As he told journalist-blogger Raissa Robles, even a mayor’s imagination “can be exhausted,” so those term limits serve a purpose.
One of Robredo’s daughters was moved to celebrate her father’s unique take on public life in a prize-winning essay in 2007. Among the “life-long lessons” she had gained from watching her dad, 15-year-old Jessica Marie wrote, was that “greatness of spirit can be achieved not through wealth, power or popularity but by living your life with quiet dignity and by becoming a man for others.”
Jesse Robredo was that rare man. We grieve for him.