Abaya, who? Annapolis grad, Cory aide, lawyerBy Christian V. Esguerra
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Who is Joseph Emilio Abaya and why has President Benigno Aquino III entrusted him with one of the toughest Cabinet jobs?
The 46-year-old representative from Cavite province was picked out of relative obscurity to head the Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC), a highly influential and much coveted office. But his appointment anything but surprised his colleagues in the House of Representatives.
Rep. Romero Quimbo considers Abaya a “perfect fit” for the DOTC job, one who belongs to what he calls a “new breed of leaders” who get the job done without calling attention to themselves.
Rep. Nathaniel Tupas Jr. sees Abaya as a “quiet and simple” man who will bring his managerial skills, discipline and, more important, integrity, to the DOTC.
“We’re not the best of friends so don’t think that I’m propping him up,” Quimbo told the Inquirer by phone. “He is very atypical of a politician. When there’s a task, it’s not about Jun Abaya, it’s about the work.”
Abaya is serving his third and last term as representative of the first district of Cavite, whose seat in the House he took over from his father, three-time Rep. Plaridel Abaya.
No special elections
Abaya’s appointment to the DOTC leaves his seat vacant, but the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is not calling special elections to fill it, as the vacancy has occurred eight months before the next congressional elections.
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said Friday that the House leadership can appoint a caretaker to take the place of Abaya in Cavite’s first district.
The secretary general of the ruling Liberal Party, Abaya is a great-grandson of the first President of the Philippines, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, and a relative of the revolutionary hero Isabelo Abaya. His uncle, Gen. Narciso Abaya, served as chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Born on May 28, 1966, Abaya is married to Rowena Abesamis, a pediatrician. They have three children.
Not new in Palace
Abaya is no stranger in Malacañang, having served as aide-de-camp to President Cory Aquino, Mr. Aquino’s mother.
“I’ve worked with the President some two decades ago though in a different capacity,” Abaya told reporters in the Palace on Friday. “I used to open doors and pull chairs for him when I was then a young lieutenant in the Navy and as former aide-de-camp to then President Cory,” he said.
Now, as head of the DOTC, he said his priorities would be, among other things, determining the cause of the plane crash that killed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, upgrading airports and overseeing the development of a connector road linking the North Luzon and the South Luzon expressways.
“The first thing I’d do is look for an executive assistant, because I was used to serving people by myself, and we’ve managed to survive,” he said. “It’s important to have an assistant so that we can promptly respond if the President looks for us,” he said.
Abaya is best remembered as the manager of the House impeachment team that prosecuted former Chief Justice Renato Corona in the Senate. It could have been a high-profile job that generated a lot of free publicity, but he stayed out of the spotlight.
While the team was still being assembled, Tupas, the chief prosecutor, said Abaya approached him and told him: “Partner, I won’t go for any airtime. All I want is to help. I’m just here to help the team. You can give me any task as long as I could be of help to our cause.”
Quimbo, who was a spokesperson for the team, credited Abaya for “holding us together,” especially during the prosecution’s shaky moments in the four-month trial.
“If not for him, we would have crumbled,” he said, recalling how the “unflappable” Abaya served as a “tempering presence” amid heated debate by prosecutors in different phases of the trial.
Day 2 of the Corona trial was particularly tough for House prosecutors when they were alternately criticized and ridiculed for being unprepared to present a witness. Tupas recalled meeting with Abaya till late in the evening after the trial to discuss how to pull things together.
That time, even some House members were quietly grumbling about the prosecution’s poor performance. Tupas said Abaya emphasized that the setback was “temporary” and the team had to “refocus.”
Strength of character
“The strength of character is always there so I think, he would make a very good secretary of the DOTC,” Tupas said.
Abaya studied engineering at the University of the Philippines, went to the Philippine Military Academy and later trained at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He won his first term as Cavite congressman in 2004 and earned a law degree from Ateneo de Manila University three years later.
Abaya won two more congressional terms, in 2007 and in 2010. He is now chair of the House committee on appropriations.
He also served on the House committees on accounts, constitutional amendments, energy, economic affairs, government reorganization, housing and urban development, oversight, public order and security, national defense and public works and highways.
Quimbo said Abaya’s appointment to the committee initially raised some eyebrows among their colleagues. Here was a quiet, young congressman heading deliberations on the country’s national budget.
“He has no airs, so people always underestimate him,” Quimbo said.
“When he became appropriations chair, he was expected to suddenly become an ‘alpha’ congressman, but he’s not like that,” Quimbo said. “People thought he was not going to do well, but he’s done a fantastic job. He’s now on his third budget and nobody’s complaining.”
Quimbo said the simplicity of Abaya showed in the car he usually used, an Isuzu Crosswind.
A PMA classmate of Abaya said he was the right man for the job at the DOTC.
“He is knowledgeable when it comes to technical matters and this fits with his new job at the DOTC,” said a classmate of Abaya in PMA Class 1988 who asked not to be named.
“But while knowledgeable, he is very humble. Some of our classmates will be working under him in the Coast Guard,” he said. Abaya often took his kids to school, even during the impeachment trial when he also went around with only his driver most of the time, the classmate added. With reports from TJ Burgonio, Jocelyn R. Uy and Inquirer Research