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Leni Robredo, as herself

/ 01:30 AM November 15, 2015

A tantalizing thought to many women (or at least the women I encounter on Facebook) is that, for what seems like the first time, the Philippines faces the possibility of having a woman president and vice president serving at the same time.

Two women—Sen. Grace Poe and Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago—are contesting the presidency; one woman, Rep. Leni Robredo of Camarines Sur, is running for vice president alongside Liberal Party standard-bearer Mar Roxas.

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Isn’t she at least tickled at the thought? I asked Robredo during a late-evening chat last Thursday with reporters and editors of this paper. “Sana hindi (I hope it doesn’t happen),” she replied. While she knows both women senators, although not all that well, Robredo said her and Roxas’ “strengths complement each other’s.”

“It also matters where we both came from, our shared orientation toward public service,” she added.

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Previously, Robredo had been quoted as saying that “anyone who once gave up her citizenship to become a citizen of another country has lost the right to later run for president of her native land.” Of course Robredo meant Poe, who says she regained her Filipino citizenship when she came home to bury her father and brought her family here. But Robredo said she was speaking as a matter of principle.

There is also the matter of Robredo’s own lack of “exposure” beyond her home district and beyond the circle of the Liberal Party and her supporters among civil society. “I am not well known,” she conceded, even if, as the widow of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, she had her own time in the limelight in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash that killed him.

But she is an “easy sell,” she said, quoting Sen. Serge Osmeña who has volunteered to assist in her campaign (but not, intriguingly, in Roxas’). “He (Osmeña) said that while I have low awareness ratings among the public, I enjoy a very high conversion rate.” Meaning, once people get to know her and listen to her, they are easily convinced to vote for her. “He said that is better than if it were the other way around.”

* * *

Many were surprised when Leni Robredo finally agreed to be Roxas’ running mate.

“It was one of the hardest, most difficult decisions I had to make,” she admitted, adding that everyone in her circle of family, friends and constituents were against her jumping into the fray of a national campaign. Most crucial was the support of her three daughters, the youngest just 15. She spoke of coming home from Bicol on the day before she made her announcement and being met by all three girls, who had been adamantly against her candidacy, but who then told her: “We have talked about it and we decided this is something Dad would want you to do.”

She has always been, Robredo said, an “underdog” in the course of her life in politics. She first bumped heads with a powerful political clan whose members were itching to return to power after Jesse’s untimely departure. Now she faces a formidable field where she is once again the least known of the contenders, trailing behind vice presidential contenders Chiz Escudero and Bongbong Marcos, the leaders of the pack.

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* * *

To his credit, Roxas takes great pains to introduce her to audiences whenever they are together in sorties, Robredo said. “He always and quickly introduces me to people.”

She wondered why Roxas should be burdened with the perception of being aloof, an elitist who doesn’t understand the problems of the “little people.”

“I have seen him among crowds and people just flock to him,” she pointed out. “In person, he is very warm.”

She best knows Roxas through the lens of her memories of her husband. “He was not mabarkada (gregarious),” she recalled of Jesse, but for some reason he and Roxas formed a bond. For many years, they would have breakfast together once a week or whenever Jesse was in Manila. And when Roxas was with her and the girls, he and his wife, broadcaster Korina Sanchez, were both “very kind and warm.”

She expressed admiration for Roxas’ performance in office, having been tested in many crises and disasters. “Kahit mahirap, hindi umaatras (Even when the going is tough, he never backs down),” she said of her running mate.

* * *

For sure, while she declared that she is “no Jesse Robredo,” admitting that “I learned my politics from him,” neither is she, nor does she aspire to be, another Mar Roxas.

For one, she has her own opinion on hot-button topics like the “tanim/laglag-bala” scandal at the airport, about which she thinks the law needs to be amended to “decriminalize the offense” of carrying a mere two or three bullets and thus disincentivize the bullet scammers. Roxas, on the other hand, thinks the coverage of the scam has simply gotten out of hand.

She backs the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, even if her support for the measure has earned her scathing, personally hurting comments from Facebook trolls. She likewise believes that while the K-to-12 program will go through many hiccups in the first few years of implementation, “we’re getting there, because we hurdled the first and most difficult step—that of creating the policy despite the many criticisms.”

“All I need to do is be myself,” Robredo responded when asked what she plans to do to hurdle the perceived lack of public recognition. She laughed when asked if she should not undergo a makeover (“Everyone who knows me knows my hair has always been a mess”), and said that while she can dance the cha-cha “on the streets of Naga during fiestas,” she draws the line at singing in public “because I just might lose more votes!”

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