Shock was the order of the day when Jesse Robredo’s plane was reported to have crashed into the sea off Masbate late in the afternoon of Aug. 18, 2012. As the days wore on and the window of hope inexorably closed, shock turned into profound regret. By the time the discovery of his body in the downed plane was announced in the morning of Aug. 21, 2012, the aching sense of loss had evolved into grief.
Who was this man and why were people mourning his passing en masse? Laid-back and low-key, he became larger than life in death, and the nation engaged in a collective appreciation of him starting from the report of the plane crash and the confirmation of his death, throughout his wake, all the way to his interment and days after. The mood was sorrowful; the sense of loss was on a personal level even among those who were strangers to him and had no occasion to even shake his hand, as though an old friend had passed into the light too soon. (In the hours after news broke of his plane crash, an unconfirmed bit of information was aired that he had been found alive by a fisherman. A wave of hope instantly surged among the citizenry and took a while to subside.)
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo had notched a sterling record as a public official early on in his political career. He was legendary as mayor of Naga City from 1988 to 1998, during which time he turned around the languishing backwater in thrall to crime syndicates to the first-class city that it once was. He was young (29) when he began to resuscitate the faltering “Heart of Bicol.”
Sweeping the streets
He was twice reelected by his constituents, who spoke fondly of their mayor as truly one of them, who told stories of his unaffected ways and how he walked around his city without the customary trappings of power, in slippers often, and who recalled that just as often he rose with the sun and, finding the opportunity, would think nothing of taking hold of a broom and sweeping parts of a street clean. Then Energy Secretary Rene Almendras, in his tribute to Robredo, called it “tsinelas brand of leadership.”
The fact is that Robredo raised the bar for not only public officials but husbands and fathers as well, and in those dog days in August when the restless sea off Masbate would not yet yield the terrible truth, it became exceedingly clear what the nation and those who loved him had lost: a leader who demanded of his constituents full collaboration in governance, who, borrowing from John Updike, “needed people, the aggravating rub of them, for stimulation,” and who was at once bold, purposeful and innovative in the public realm and attentive, gentle and loving at home. A robust public official and a tender family man—an excellent mix from any perspective.
That he is a rarity in Philippine politics added to the deep regret that accompanied Robredo to his grave. Without fanfare and self-promotion, he breathed life into the qualities of integrity and professionalism both on the local and national scale. Against the grain of those who feather their nests from lucrative government posts, he was a champion of transparency. As chief of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), he instituted a full-disclosure policy that requires local government units (LGUs) to disclose documents showing how funds are spent. As of June 2012, according to the DILG, 99 percent of LGUs had complied.
The decisive factor
The man was untiring in pushing people empowerment as the decisive factor in good governance; his long service as hizzoner was a showcase of it. “Unless and until the citizens claim good governance from those who vow to serve them, we will not [succeed in] the work of participatory governance,” Jean Llorin, Robredo’s friend, ally and associate, once quoted him as saying. That formulation appeared to have served as a mantra during his term of office in Naga and resulted in the passage of Ordinance No. 95-092, which was famously known as the “Empowerment Ordinance” and which became a model for other cities and towns.
The ordinance made possible the direct participation of sectoral representatives in Naga’s development planning process. The Naga City People’s Council became an active partner of the local government; in the course of its existence when Robredo was no longer mayor, as though hewing to the idea of continuing revolution, the council was revitalized to beef up its capacity for engagement.
But these are mere words! The concrete proof of Robredo’s work in Naga, as noted by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation which recognized him for government service in 2000, can be seen in the high schools, daycare centers, public hospital, farm-to-market roads in the rural communities, and lots for the homeless, as well as in the people whom he drew into civic action and the city employees whose performance, productivity and morale he raised.
According to the foundation, Robredo demonstrated that “effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.”
Robredo employed the same vision on the national scale, improving LGUs’ disaster risk reduction capabilities, among other things, and, only days before his death, preparing to embark on a campaign to empower ordinary citizens to demand good governance and transparency from their leaders.
How tragic that he would be cut down in his prime, the DILG portfolio only two years in his capable hands, and perennial problems like illegal logging only lately given the benefit of his attention. Those in the know say that an immensely more challenging task had lain ahead of him, that he was actually being groomed for a presidential run in 2016—that he was “the best president the Philippines never had.” Imagine what he could have achieved and made possible.
Still Robredo’s example inspires, lending a wealth of insight into the virtues of people-empowered governance and of unqualified devotion to spouse and children, parents and siblings. Whence comes another?
Editor’s Note: The Philippine Daily Inquirer annually honors a living Filipino who has made the most positive impact on the life of the nation. But for only the second time since the beginning of the Filipino of the Year series in 1991, the Inquirer voted for a nonliving Filipino.
Fernando Poe Jr., who died in December 2004, was named that year.
The Inquirer editors and assistant editors voted Jesse Robredo the Filipino of the Year for 2012.
Of 63 votes, Robredo received 17; Luis Cardinal Tagle, 11; and President Aquino, 8. The rest of the nominees were, in the order of number of votes received: Cris Valdez, Sen. Pia Cayetano, Rep. Edcel Lagman, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, government and MILF peace panels, Dolphy, Filipino women, Filipino Indie makers, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Kevin Balot.