I’m surprised to remember that I met Jesse Robredo only in the late 1990s. I feel like I’ve always known him. I left Naga where I grew up (I wasn’t born there, I was born in Manila) after high school and have been going back there only sparingly, on the occasions that I’m invited to talk.
I had heard about Jesse throughout the 1990s but hadn’t met him. I met him curiously enough on a plane, in circumstances believers in these things might call an omen. Or signos, as Bicolanos call it.
I hadn’t been to Naga for about five years or so and was looking forward to it. I had been invited to talk in a literary event and was eager to meet the writers. While we were in midair, Francis Soler, Jesse’s aide, came up to my seat, introduced himself as the brother of my classmate in high school, Nilo, and said Jesse had recognized me from the papers and wanted to meet me.
But of course, I said, I had heard good things about him as the mayor of Naga. He came over and we spoke briefly.
He was surprised that I grew up in Naga and saw my identity as a Bicolano notwithstanding that I had lived in Manila nearly all my life. I said Naga was my formative years, Bicol was my cradle language. He said we should have dinner once we got to Naga City. I said yes.
Alas, that dinner never took place. Shortly before we were to land, the plane went on a holding pattern because of poor visibility on the ground. I wondered about that because it wasn’t raining, but that apparently happened often, the early morning fog would not lift and the pilot, who needed to physically see the notoriously short runway, couldn’t land. After circling for about 15 minutes, the pilot announced that he was turning back to Manila. I felt frustrated. So near and yet so far, it was maddening.
We went back to Manila. Before we landed, Francis told me to wait, Jesse would negotiate for a flight to Legazpi from where we could just drive to Naga. Maybe I would like to join them. Certainly, I said, and waited.
Alas, that too wouldn’t happen. All flights to Legazpi had just been canceled as Mayon was acting up, spewing ash in the air. Better to err on the side of caution, PAL ruled. I went home shortly after that, cursing my bad luck.
I would learn later that Jesse and company decided later on to just motor their way home. No one longed to go back to Naga more than Jesse, notwithstanding that he never stayed, or strayed, from it for any long period of time.
That was what he was doing on Saturday night, hurrying home. He had every reason to. It was a long weekend, a good time to rest sore and weary bones. It was a time of celebration, his daughter had just won a medal in a swimming competition. And it was Naga City, he was going back to the welcoming arms of his loved ones, he was going back to the welcoming arms of home.
That was what kept going through my mind the first time I heard the news that Jess’ plane had crashed. It should have been a joyous occasion. Instead it became a nightmare. Jesse had been unduly delayed, to the unimaginable anxiety of his family. It would turn out, permanently.
Ah, but your heart just bleeds for the family.
I don’t know what Jesse’s plans were, whether he would have run next year as a senator or just held on to his post at the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), as his Kaya Natin coconvenor, Harvey Keh, asserts.
I hadn’t spoken to Jesse for some time. The last time we spoke at some length was at the vin d’honneur in Malacañang early this year. I did bump into him early last week, but he was rushing off somewhere and it was just hello and goodbye. At least I managed to say goodbye.
Too big a fish
I had always been egging him to seek higher office, figuring he had become much too big a fish for much too small a pond. But until he became DILG secretary, he never did, preferring to stay in Naga and preferring to run only as mayor. That was so even after he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for governance, the first Filipino local official to have done so.
His aides would tell me he did worry about his enemies’ threat to put his nationality under question—he had Chinese ancestry—a thing that bowled me over. That, I said, was like questioning Fernando Poe Jr.’s nationality. Would anyone be willing to risk being laughed at and scorned for suggesting that the Magsaysay Foundation gave the award for governance not to a Filipino but to a Chinese?
We’ll never know the answer to that.
Jesse’s transition into higher office, or at least into a national one, did not come smoothly. He was waylaid early on by controversy, ending up in a feud with his second-in-command, Rico Puno, after the hostage-taking crisis at Luneta that led to a bloodbath.
That was not his finest moment. But he appeared to have patched up his differences with Puno later on, and went on to make up for the initial stumble by going on an easy stride afterward.
I don’t know that he would have ended first on the finish line if he had been given the opportunity to finish the race. He embarked on his job like a man on a mission, becoming one of the hardest working members of P-Noy’s Cabinet. That he was working on Saturday, the first day of a long weekend, attending a law enforcement meeting in Cebu, testified to his zeal.
Naga City mayor
But however he is weighed as a secretary, it is as the mayor of Naga City that he will always be remembered by his grateful constituents there. It was in that capacity that he left a legacy to governance, a fact recognized by the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
It was in that capacity that he left a legacy to the nation, which gave him a higher office than governor, or congressmen, or senator. It was in that capacity that he became a national figure after all.
Naga City never had a better mayor. A thing Nagueños so deeply appreciated they would have voted him mayor for life, if it hadn’t been for term limits, and if he hadn’t gone on to become DILG head. He could have always have run unopposed, or only with token opposition, his opponent running only for having nothing better to do.
That was how well he was loved. That was how well he was respected. That was how deeply Nagueños appreciated what he had done for them.
As mayor for most of the 1990s, he wrought an amazing transformation on the city, turning it into the real capital of Bicol. Before he became so, in 1988, at age 29, which made him the youngest mayor in the country, Naga City was a sluggish town, home to poverty and small-town politics as much as the province, Camarines Sur, that circumscribed it.
It was a city characterized only by its more enterprising residents trying to escape it, either by going to Manila or going abroad. Though owning a separate charter from Camarines Sur, Naga City was not much separated from it in quality of life. That would change after Jesse took over.
Over more than a decade that Jesse was mayor of Naga City, he turned it into a refuge from the storm, or an enclave in a vast area known more for jueteng and criminality than for enterprise and ingenuity.
Until only about five or so years ago, when Camarines Sur became Cam Sur and went from one of the country’s most impoverished provinces to one of its most progressive ones, Naga City was that, a beacon of light amid the surrounding darkness.
Folk there still talk of the feud between the city government and the provincial one throughout the 1990s, which at some junctures threatened to turn violent. Jesse hinted of it when he received his Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2000:
“We had many obstacles and pains when we started to experiment with a government system that veered away from the traditional. During that period, we’ve been threatened by ways that inflicted the social, political and moral fabric of the community-rampant illegal gambling, indecent entertainment, crime, occasional abuse by the powers-that-be, poor tax collection, rising unemployment and sheer indifference.
“Important political benefactors whose interests ran contrary to our reform agenda disowned us. Businessmen who were my friends were affected by the city’s honest-to-goodness tax collection campaign questioned our intentions and loyalties. We however stood our ground, strengthened our resolve and entrusted our faith to the people. We brought our office beyond the walls of City Hall and promised to make Naga a better place to live in.”
The result was impressive, which was felt not just by the residents but by public officials themselves. Government employees found a new sense of enthusiasm. Government itself acquired a sense of direction and purpose.
Encounter with SM
Francis Soler told me later that “SIM City” became their favorite game at City Hall. It helped them conceptualize urban planning. It helped them hone their skills at looking at the alternative use of resources.
That life imitating art, or government imitating game, was not just conducive to fantasy, results soon became patent. Applications from big businesses in Manila started coming in. Shoe Mart, sniffing profit in the new growth area, wanted to put up a mall inside the centro.
The city government refused, and ruled instead to confine the huge firms to an industrial and commercial enclave on the outskirts of the city. City Hall’s message was clear: Naga would grow, but by its own terms.
Some NGOs would also tell me at that time that they were hard put to keep up with the energies of City Hall. Here was a case where the local government itself took up the cudgels for causes that were dear to civil society’s heart.
Naga lost its squatters. Government put up a low-cost housing area for the poor at the fringes of the city and offered them livelihood opportunities. When I went there early in the last decade, some of the residents had already managed to fence off their property with low walls made of hollow blocks.
Jesse was a great manager, that was his strong suit. But more than that, he was a dedicated public official, which was his stronger suit. Throughout his long years as mayor of Naga, I never heard him accused of pilfering from the public till. Throughout his long years as mayor of Naga, I never heard him accused of having power get to his head. He continued to take public transport. He continued to live simply.
Nothing demonstrated that than a story a friend told me some years ago.
Things from the heart
Several typhoons had lashed at Bicol in the mid-1990s, and a particularly ferocious one had made a direct hit of Naga. The storm had caused the earth to loosen and tumble into the city square from the force of the floodwater. My friend was driving back to Manila at break of day, and while passing through the chapel near the centro, she saw a solitary figure against the gray sky shoveling muck in the doorway of a church.
As she drew near, she recognized the figure. It was the mayor of Naga City. Clad in shorts and T-shirt, Jesse was trying to carve a path to the church. He had risen earlier than his staff and had decided to go ahead and ease the pains of a worsted city.
At the time, Jesse had just come home from Harvard after receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award for governance. I was certain he did not learn this from Harvard. Some things you can’t teach. Some things just come from the heart.
That is how I will always remember Jesse. Today, I look at the tears of his overwrought family, the anguish of his overwrought kabanwa, the grief of his overwrought kababayan, and I know he is such a great loss.
But I also look at the admiration of his fellow Filipinos, the appreciation of his nation, the gratefulness of his beloved Nagueños, and I know something else. It might not have been how he planned it but, as he has always done before, he has come through.
He has come home.