“Manny’s Secret Weapon” is a “title” long attached to Cynthia Villar, Liberal Party senatorial candidate and wife of Sen. Manny Villar.
Together, the Villars have built a real estate business and then matching political careers. While Manny Villar was serving in Congress as Las Piñas representative, it was Cynthia who took direct control of the business, although her husband once confessed that he found consulting with his executives and building the business “relaxing.” When he moved to the Senate (after serving as House Speaker and presiding over the impeachment of then President Erap), Cynthia took over the Las Piñas congressional seat.
She did an excellent job at this post, serving three terms and heading the “Lady Legislators” group during the 12th Congress. This is not entirely unexpected, though, given that Cynthia belongs to the long-standing Aguilar political clan. At the end of her third term (son Mark took over her seat), Cynthia set out to strengthen the Villar Foundation, which is devoted to promoting income opportunities for women, not just in Las Piñas but nationwide.
Although her husband says he plans to retire from politics after this term, Cynthia doesn’t see herself as simply stepping into Manny’s shoes. “Not guilty,” she says deadpan when confronted with the issue of political dynasties. “If you want to end a dynasty, you can do so with your votes. And it’ll be your loss, not mine.”
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Such a direct way of speaking, it turns out, is trademark Cynthia Villar, who is plain-spoken and not given much to rhetorical flourishes. But she can wax emotional, in a way, when she tries to explain why she is running for the Senate this time around.
“[My candidacy] is about redeeming a name,” she tells the crowd at the recent Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel. “Our opponents [during Manny’s failed run for the presidency in 2010] called us ‘Villarroyo’ (a dig at their supposed ties to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), but how could that be when I voted for GMA’s impeachment in 2005? I was always in the opposition when I was in the House. The tag was so unfair to Manny.”
So it is indeed a marvel that Cynthia—along with two other stalwarts of the Nacionalista Party, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano—are running under the coalition crafted out of a cobbled-together Nacionalista Party, Liberal Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Akbayan and PDP-Laban. “We have moved on,” she declares, adding that P-Noy and Manny talked about a common slate soon after the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona. “This is our only country,” she adds, explaining her decision to run alongside former critics and opponents.
“I like politics because it makes me get out and meet people,” Cynthia reflects, “but I don’t like it when I have to say bad things about my opponents.”
Among other elements in her platform, Cynthia is pushing for livelihood opportunities for the poor. Lately, she has been traveling around the country, providing orientation and training (and even machinery and materials) to groups of women who want to organize small businesses. “I don’t give money,” she declares, “because I would rather give people the skills and know-how to earn for themselves and their families.”
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“Moving on” might well be a slogan, too, for Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, who is running in the same slate as Villar. Despite a heartbreaking 13th place in the 2010 senatorial contest, Risa has decided once more to vie for a Senate seat.
This, after serving three terms as a party-list representative in the House for the Akbayan Citizens’ Party. Indeed, after she told her four children in 2010 that she was running for the Senate, says Risa, “all they wanted to know was if it meant campaigning like I did for the party-list seat.” And since party-list candidates have to campaign around the country, it really wasn’t much of a stretch for her to go campaigning for the Senate.
Today, wiser and more experienced after her first run, Risa has a clear agenda in mind, including women’s rights, farmers’ rights and progressive causes such as broadening access to human rights in general.
“You just take it one day at a time,” she replies when asked how she manages to cope with the challenges of politics and organizing while being a single parent to a college-age son and teen and preteen daughters. Her husband Frank was an officer of the Philippine National Police when he passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack following a bout with asthma.
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Although belonging to a “nontraditional” party and with roots in the activist and NGO world, Risa has also, it seems, grown wise to the ways of politics.
For one thing, she has created a signature “look,” wearing a long scarf or alampay that, depending on her issue of the moment, serves as a symbol and visual cue. “It began simply as a way to keep warm in the cold confines of the House,” she explains, “and then evolved as a creative way of expressing my preoccupations, like violet when I’m working on women’s issues, red when we’re pushing for human rights, or green when we’re tackling the environment.”
Toward the end of our dinner, Risa obliges our request for a song, choosing to sing “All I Ask of You” from “Phantom of the Opera.” With some regret, she says she may never get to watch the musical during its local run because of the issues that local entertainers have raised about the foreign cast’s equity payments. This says a lot, to me, about how she weds the personal with the political, indicating a deep commitment to the politics of integrity.