In an election campaign dominated by old and familiar names, his is one that easily stands out: Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, son of a political veteran whose family rules the politics of Aurora province.
His name stands out but no one really knows much about him.
Who is this congressman with the boyish good looks, who was supposedly handpicked by President Aquino to join the administration’s senatorial ticket?
This apparently is a major challenge for Angara in his first national campaign: How to introduce himself not just as the son of an accomplished father but as someone who can stand on his own merits.
Angara, 40, has his work cut out for him. Awareness of him among voters is stuck in the region of 80 percent, which is more than 10 points lower than that of the more popular candidates, particularly incumbent senators.
Rep. JV Ejercito, another senatorial aspirant whose candidacy is being propelled by name recall associated with a well-known parent, reportedly does not even bother with “awareness” anymore.
Ejercito is now supposedly focused on the actual votes, as his popularity has reportedly soared after he began using the screen name of his wildly popular ex-movie idol father, deposed President and convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada.
Angara has 90 days to turn things around. But he’s not about to dissociate himself from his father, Sen. Edgardo Angara, whose name has lately been dragged into controversy by the issue of political dynasties and the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (Apeco) project, whose creation was a father-and-son legislative effort.
Angara’s demeanor is not that different from his father’s. Like his old man, he is soft-spoken and reticent.
Unlike his father, however, Angara is the cool type, never raising his voice, sometimes to the point of seeming to be perennially reverential—even apologetic—even to people he doesn’t know. But he says that’s who he is and he is not planning on changing that.
The senior Angara can be combative, confrontational and sarcastic under fire. It showed at the height of the Apeco controversy when Sen. Sergio Osmeña III accused him of conflict of interest.
It was alleged that the father and son legislators had authored the Apeco law so their family could financially benefit from the project, which covers 12,400 hectares of land. The Angaras have denied the allegation, insisting that the ecozone would benefit the poor people of Aurora.
“We stick with what we are comfortable with. I’ve been told many times that I should go on the attack, tackle issues which are sexier. But that’s not me. Maybe some people might be looking for something radically different. They might be disappointed,” the candidate said.
Keeping the status quo would mean no singing or dancing in Angara’s campaign sorties. The entertainment part of the Angara campaign will presumably be handled by pop star Sarah Geronimo, who has been taken on as a celebrity endorser.
No ordinary candidate
If anything, Angara believes that his being his father’s son would work to his advantage during the actual campaign.
“I won’t go out of my way to separate myself from him because I don’t see the need to,” he told Inquirer editors and reporters recently.
He is no ordinary candidate. He comes from a political family long entrenched in Aurora politics. However well-meaning his motivations for running might be, a Senate election victory for him would mean the continuation of the Angara “lineage” in the Senate, much like the already entrenched Pimentels, Cayetanos, Estradas and Enriles.
Does he think he deserves to be elected by virtue of political pedigree?
“By all means, scrutinize the candidates. Don’t give us a free ride, including myself. Make things difficult for us,” he said, confident that his legislative work in the past nine years could stand scrutiny. At the very least, he thinks it has earned him the opportunity to run and succeed his father.
A ‘benign’ dynasty
Angara rejects the idea that “all [political] dynasties are bad.” He says there are “benign” dynasties, counting among the angels the one that his family has erected in Aurora.
In true dynastic fashion, Angara’s aunt, Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, who is on her last term as governor of Aurora, is running for the congressional seat that he is vacating. His father, a last-termer senator, at first indicated that he would run for the gubernatorial seat his sister was vacating. But he withdrew in favor of his younger brother, the outgoing mayor of Baler town. And so it goes.
For years, Aurora has been synonymous with the name Angara, much like Tarlac is with Aquino, Ilocos Norte with Marcos, Ilocos Sur with Singson or San Juan with Estrada.
But Angara pointed out that the family name has also been associated with education, job creation and health care—gut issues that are expected to figure prominently during the campaign.
Angara has no problem with power being concentrated in one family “as long as [the position] is democratically given, there’s no use of force or [they] are not warlords.”
But he admits that the “quality” of public service could also suffer if family members “find it so easy to get into office.”
That’s why voters should not elect candidates “on the basis of name recall” or allow them to “piggyback on a more successful ancestor,” he said.
Angara’s educational background is exceptional: He’s a graduate of both the London School of Economics and Harvard University, where he finished a master’s degree in law. He practiced law for more than a year until the family business beckoned.
He ran for Congress in 2004, his victory virtually assured in the family-dominated Aurora province. By all accounts, he is a hardworking, if quiet, congressman. Among the measures that he has authored are the Universal Kindergarten Act and the “kasambahay” bill, which has yet to be signed into law by President Aquino.
But outside of Angara’s home turf, people generally know his surname in association with his more famous father. Last year, he got something of a break when he became one of the spokespersons of the team of congressmen who prosecuted former Chief Justice Renato Corona in the Senate impeachment trial.
It was a high-profile job that he shared with Representatives Miro Quimbo and Erin Tañada. But he admits having been upstaged by his colleagues, particularly Quimbo with his boy-band haircut and bombast.
Whether his exposure throughout the Corona impeachment raised his public profile, it did not show in the survey that came right after the trial, according to the younger Angara. If anything, he saw his ratings dip, which he said was because the mass of Filipinos, who comprise the majority of voters, were not the trial’s main audience.
But his involvement in the Corona impeachment did bring a salutary effect. It provided a “separation from my father—people knew that there was a Congressman Angara,” he said.
More importantly, he said it brought him to “the attention of the powers-that-be, the President,” who was in the process of putting together the administration’s senatorial ticket for the May 2013 elections.
The “separation” from the father could be short-lived, however, as for the next three months, the senior Angara will be his son’s campaign manager on the principle that there’s so much to learn from a grizzled veteran who still values “personal contact” in a campaign.
Behind the scenes, however, is the more important aspect of legislative work, that of “institution-building,” as Angara put it.
“My viewpoint is I’ve done well if I’ve built on institutions, if I’ve made things better, as opposed to someone who has not done anything or maybe just warmed his seat,” he said.
“Rather than reinvent the wheel, you just ask what’s there and ask yourself how you can make things better,” he said, citing his father’s work in the area of education.
From his old man, Angara said he got a lesson on what constitutes real achievement.
“He’s from the school [of thought] that believes that achievements would speak for themselves, which may or may not be true,” he said.