He has been reluctantly thrust into the show biz limelight owing to an affair of the heart.
But with just a month left before the midterm polls, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero is hoping to train the electorate’s eyes back to the affairs of the state—a turf where he hopes to remain in the next six years and even beyond.
“As best as we can, we’re trying to address the [political] issues as well until this fades away so we can focus our eyes on the ball again—that is, on the issues,” said the 43-year-old legislator, now tangled in the web of a complicated relationship with actress-girlfriend Heart Evangelista.
Much has been written about the controversy involving Escudero and Evangelista, with the latter’s parents against her relationship with the separated senator and father of 5-year-old twins.
Escudero hopes the public would rediscover what he became known for in the first place: a key opposition leader who fought the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a lawyer and lawmaker who pushed legislation to protect human rights and now, a reelectionist who wants to continue a campaign for clean governance.
Escudero is running as an independent—he left his longtime party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, just months ahead of the 2010 presidential elections—but has been “adopted” by President Aquino in the administration coalition’s Team PNoy for the May polls. The President has been his close friend even back when they were still members of the House of Representatives.
He was also adopted by the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) led by Vice President Jejomar Binay, whose bid for the country’s second top post he supported in 2010.
Focus on track record
But the UNA dropped him, along with Sen. Loren Legarda and Grace Poe in February, saying the three failed to fulfill commitments to the coalition. Escudero, who learned of the abandonment only through media, said he never committed to any UNA appearance and was never formally invited when the coalition was still in the works.
He has not spoken to any of UNA’s leaders since, including Binay.
Still, Escudero is holding his own, consistently topping surveys on people’s choices for the 2013 Senate.
As voters decide on their ballot, Escudero hopes that people would focus on his “track record—what I’ve done, what I have not done, what I’ve said, what I did not say and my qualifications and achievements.”
Personal life separate
“Because at the end of the day, I made sure of the fact that I separated my personal life from my political life and my job,” Escudero said.
For one, he said, he promised to never allow his girlfriend to campaign for him.
“Early on, I already announced [that] Heart will not join me in any campaign sortie or rally and she will not campaign for me. She will not appear in any ad and I have stood pat on that. Can you imagine if I did that and this [controversy] came out?” said Escudero.
“But when people look for Heart, I tell them, ‘I didn’t bring her along because you will only pay attention to her, not me,’” the senator said in jest.
Evangelista’s parents recently demanded an apology from the senator, whom they accused of being disrespectful and arrogant, and for “manipulating” their daughter into “going against her family.” Rey and Cecile Ongpauco also appealed to Escudero to “leave our daughter alone.”
“Of course I am [distracted]. Tao lang ako (I’m only human). I get affected, especially when I cannot respond,” said the senator in a recent interview with Inquirer editors and reporters.
Sense of humor
He was visibly leaner but the busy campaign schedule and the current controversy on his personal affairs have not robbed Escudero of his sense of humor.
“Di naman ako bato. Hindi applicable sa akin ’yung kantang ‘Pusong Bato’ (I am not hard as stone. The song ‘Heart of Stone’ does not apply to me),” the senator said, laughing, as he made reference to the popular Filipino karaoke pick that spoke of a broken heart.
“I thought forbidden love is only seen on TV or in the movies. I thought that a rich girl falling in love with a not-so-rich boy is only the subject of teleseryes. I guess I thought wrong,” he said.
It started with Miriam
Escudero said it was not his decision to make public his relationship with the 28-year-old actress but people “have a funny way of wanting to know certain things.”
“As a public official, we are obliged to answer to a certain degree, without violating the privacy of other people associated with the issue who are not public figures,” said the young legislator.
Escudero said he was introduced to Evangelista by a common friend, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, in April 2012. They were officially a couple “sometime in July.”
Because of Evangelista, the senator said he would “smile more often. I also know the latest news in show biz, like who dated whom or who broke up with whom.”
Escudero said he found it too difficult to answer point-by-point the allegations that the Ongpaucos made during their press conference on March 19.
‘It’s hard to answer back’
During the press conference, Evangelista’s mother, Cecile, raised the issue of Escudero being an “alcoholic.” Cecile also claimed the senator “seduced” Evangelista into thinking he would become the President by 2016 and she, the first lady. Cecile also said the family found Escudero’s relationship with their daughter “unacceptable” because of the senator’s inability to give their daughter a church wedding. Escudero’s first marriage to singer Christine Flores was annulled by the court last year.
“This is not just a case of a fellow senator criticizing my work. I could easily answer back. For this, I need to stop myself from talking because, hopefully, in the end, I’d still get to see them when they’ve already patched things up with their daughter,” he said.
“I’m still weighing things out. Remember, I wasn’t the one who named someone as lasenggo, bastos and walang modo,” he pointed out. “It’s hard to answer back. I’m trying my best not to say anything for the meantime. Heart and I were caught by surprise by what was said at the press conference.”
The senator then refused to go on record to answer Ongpauco’s claim that he’s an alcoholic. “I’m in an awkward position. Suffice it to say that everything they said, everything they’re doing now, is just because they want us to break up. They admitted this themselves during their press conference.”
Escudero added: “You see, I also have children—I love them—but this doesn’t give me the license to say bad things about them. When they grow up and eventually do something to displease me, I’d talk to them privately. I will not set up a press conference.”
Escudero said Evangelista was “devastated” by the controversy but “she’s getting better now.”
Escudero said he hopes to pursue an anticorruption advocacy if reelected for another six years, toeing the tuwid na daan (straight path) line the Aquino administration had initiated in 2010.
“Our main thrust and objective would be to minimize discretion in government. You minimize discretion, you minimize corruption. If you eliminate discretion, you eliminate corruption,” said Escudero.
“Basically, I’ve seen how it works for the first time since I entered government—the value of an anticorruption drive [and] its effect on the economy, the perception of businessmen from other countries. In my simple view of things, discretion equals corruption,” he said.
He recalled a simple anticorruption method implemented by the late Emilia Boncodin, budget secretary during Arroyo’s time, where disbursement requests were processed and released on a “first in, first out” basis.
“When a congressman comes in and his voucher is number 20 in the queue, the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) will say, ‘Sorry Mr. Congressman, we are still at No. 8. We will get to you,’” said Escudero of the process that eliminated the practice of pulling strings to get one lawmaker’s request processed ahead of others.
No pockets, no drawers
He had a practical suggestion to solve known corrupt practices in the internal revenue and customs bureaus, where money often changes hands: “There should be no pockets in employee’s uniforms and tables should have no drawers.” (See related story on Page A1.)
He credited Aquino, a candidate whose last-minute presidential bid in 2010 he endorsed, for laying the groundwork. It would take consistency for the developments—the record 6.6-percent 2012 economic growth and the Philippine economy’s recent upgrade to investment grade—to trickle down the socioeconomic ladder but change has begun, said Escudero.
“It has to be sustained. Because the only time that the growth we are seeing right now can be felt downstairs in the form of creation of jobs and increased incomes would be if he can do this for at least four quarters or two years,” said the senator.
While the current administration is “not perfect,” Escudero lauded Aquino’s stringent personal stance against corruption, saying none of his close colleagues or even relatives could pull strings in Malacañang.
“Name me one official who is close to him who can actually say this line: ‘Ah may kailangan ka ba kay P-Noy? Sagot ko na ’yan, ako na bahala (You need anything from the President? I’ll take care of it).’ Nobody can say that with certainty. Right now, no one can. Not even the sisters can say that,” said Escudero, referring to Aquino’s siblings.
Still along anticorruption lines, Escudero said he would push for the passage of the Waiver Bill if reelected. The bill, which he said has been “languishing” in the Senate, seeks to bind public officials and candidates in signing a waiver to make their bank records known publicly.
Under his proposal, bank secrecy waivers should be filed alongside a public official’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
Escudero was among the 20 senators who voted to convict former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona at the conclusion of his impeachment trial in May last year. He was impeached for deficiencies in his SALN.
The senator also hopes to push for the pending amendment of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act to lower the costs of electricity in the Philippines. The country’s current power rates are known to be among the highest in Southeast Asia.
In search of happy ending
Asked whether or not he was willing to apologize to the Ongpaucos, Escudero said: “I’m not closing any doors. In fact, I’m opening even the windows. Who wouldn’t want a happy ending?”
Escudero addressed the issue of eventually getting married to Evangelista. “We haven’t talked about this yet. I don’t know why this was even mentioned. It’s completely unfair to both Heart and me. It’s wrong for me to say they’re being presumptuous because I know it will only be interpreted in a different way,” he stressed.
However, Escudero added that he has already filed for annulment of his church wedding and that it’s “under process. We’ve already filed it and it’s being heard now.”
The senator claimed he still planned to reach out to Evangelista’s parents. “Time heals all wounds. Things we thought to be impossible before are possible now. Let’s just look at the case of China and Taiwan. We all thought there would be war but a decade later there are over 300 flights from the mainland to Taiwan. Look at where they are now? But then again, these are nations, not individuals.”
Escudero said Evangelista has also met his kids—Cecilia and Joaquin—with his ex-wife. “They’re okay. I’d like to just leave it at that… The kids are turning 6 in September. They’d sometimes tease me when I say goodbye to them before going to work. They’d say, ‘Where are you going, Daddy? Are you off to see Tita Heart?’”