MANILA, Philippines ? In her first foray into Isabela politics in 2001, Maria Gracia Cielo Padaca, a polio-stricken radio broadcaster, was not so lucky when she ran against Rep. Faustino Dy III in the province?s third congressional district race.
That poll defeat, however, did not dampen her desire to serve her native Isabela. Backed by religious groups and nongovernment and civic organizations, Padaca again tested the political waters and ran for governor in the 2004 elections.
She clashed with Dy III?s brother, reelectionist Gov. Faustino Dy Jr., and ended his family?s more than 30-year hold of the top leadership of Isabela. It was the same story in the 2007 polls when Padaca sought reelection and proved that Isabelinos wanted her to lead over another member of the Dy family, former Gov. Benjamin Dy.
This year, Padaca, 44, the woman who ended Isabela?s ?Dy-nasty,? has been recognized by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for government service. The award, Asia?s counterpart of the prestigious Nobel Prize, cited Padaca for empowering voters to ?reclaim their democratic right to elect leaders of their own choosing, and to contribute as full partners in their own development.?
In an interview with Inquirer correspondent Melvin Gascon, Padaca shares the value of the award to her governance thrust. Excerpts:
What does the Ramon Magsaysay Award mean to you?
It means that no one is too insignificant to play a role in helping make society better. Going through the roster of past Ramon Magsaysay awardees and even me and my 2008 co-winners, one can see that most are ordinary people who were recognized for something which they themselves perhaps thought were not really extraordinary.
What made you so emotional when you were told that you have won the award?
Why me? Ako lang ito (It?s just me)? What else can be a higher award for a Filipino than the [Magsaysay] Award?
I knew that I was nominated by Mayor Jesse Robredo of Naga City because he told me about it and asked for my biodata. That was I think in the middle part of June.
When I got the call from the RM Awards [board of trustees] chair Carmen Abella telling me that I am one of the winners, I said, ?But no one has interviewed me yet. Akala ko po marami pang screening at prosesong dadaanan. Wala pa namang nangyaring ganoon (I thought it was going to be a long screening process; nothing of that sort has been conducted yet).?
She laughed and said, ?Iyon ang akala mo (That?s what you think).?
When Among [Pampanga] Gov. Ed Panlilio called up to congratulate me, he asked, ?Naiyak ka daw (Is it true you cried)??
?Oo nga,? I said, ?because I am not worthy to receive it. But only say the word and I shall be thrilled.?
When you attended the RM awarding ceremonies last year, did you ever yearn for the award then given to former Senate President Jovito Salonga?
Not a single thought toward that direction. How can I ever think of myself being in the league of [former] Sen. Jovito Salonga (her party-mate in the Liberal Party)? Diyos ko, ibang level sila (My god, they?re on a different level).
Just to be in the same room with the awardees, listening to them, and also seeing the members of the board of trustees and the people who were with me in the audience, our leaders in the LP, I was already in awe. That was a highlight enough for me.
What do you plan to do with your prize money?
We will have our briefing starting Aug. 26. I will have to [inquire] if I can use it for myself or if we are supposed to share it with others.
What is your plan of action regarding the continued operation of illegal gambling in many parts of Isabela?
My stand has not changed against ?jueteng.? This curse of society has almost taken away my respect for a lot of government officials and top police officers. I have come to the frustrating conclusion that one single person like me can do so little against it since I am up against so many law enforcers and even leaders directly benefiting from it, with impunity and in connivance with the very people who have the power to make the big difference.
So I came to a point when I had to write the [Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office] for the provincial government of Isabela to consider, in the meantime, the operation of the small town lottery. I wrote PCSO Chair Sergio Valencia, and last week, I finally got a [reply].
In the coming days, we will see what change this will cause to the jueteng landscape in Isabela. Will the situation get even worse than it already is or will it get any better with the advent of STL? This we all should monitor.
I will do it grudgingly until the best alternative, as far as I am concerned, is for us to have law enforcement that is strong and dedicated enough to stop all kinds of illegal gambling and a people enlightened enough not to become willing victims of the greed of others.
How would you describe your relationship with mayors who are allied with your political rivals?
Before I could even be sworn in as governor in 2004, a letter of support for former Gov. Faustino Dy Jr. was published in the national papers, signed by almost all of the 36 mayors. In my first year, they even started collecting signatures for a recall move against me. But that did not prosper.
Starting October 2004, we implemented the Ugnayang Bayan, held once a week, usually on Wednesdays. All visitors requesting to see me, including walk-ins, are welcomed and received at my office.
Through the Ugnayang Bayan, we were able to systematically respond to the needs of Isabelinos. After a year of implementation, about 90 percent of the province?s 1,018 barangay have received financial assistance for projects directly from the provincial government, without having to go through their mayors.
I have always told barangay officials that if they do not do well in their joint projects with [the province], I will turn to [nongovernment organizations] or [people?s organizations] in their barangay [where we could] course provincial government funds.
The mayors and more barangay leaders started coming and cooperating. Even some of the most rabid supporters of the [previous] administration started testing the waters. They came to realize that Governor Padaca is against politics of patronage.
It helped a lot that I was trained as a broadcaster to be dispassionate, not to take issues personally. I could not bring myself to exact revenge or even make ?taray? if a mayor comes humbly to me and seeks my help and promises his cooperation and support, even if he was mean to me during the elections.
The 2007 elections proved in many ways that loyalty to the Dys was still deeply ingrained in the system of some of the mayors and barangay officials, but I knew that they would not treat me anymore as shabbily as they did during the 2004 elections because we already had some bonding moments.
Unlike before, they have [started] talking and discussing things with me. They received my trust as well as my recognition that they are my partners in delivering service to our Apo Isabelinos. In other words, respect begets respect.
Your name has repeatedly been mentioned as among those being eyed by your party to be drafted for its 2010 senatorial slate. What are your thoughts on this?
No one has formally informed me yet of any plan to draft me. I suppose it?s just a result of random enumeration. We?ll see what happens between now and 2010.
I have long stopped planning for myself; hindi naman natutuloy (it?s often not realized). Like when I resigned from Bombo Radyo to finally have a more private, quiet life than that of a broadcaster, what happened? After just a year, I was thrust into an even more public life ? as candidate for governor.
Para mas simple na lang, ang prinsipyo ko na sa buhay: Kung ano ang kailangan, iyon ang gagawin ko (To make things simpler, I have assumed this principle in life: I will do whatever needs to be done). Even if at first, it will require a lot of personal sacrifices from me, I will just follow where the Lord leads [me] because I have proven time and again that He will do what is best for me and for everyone who?s affected by my decision.
I will know how to decide when the moment comes, using my experiences, my judgment of the situation and my faith in God.
What do you hope to accomplish within the next two years of your term?
To be able to actively help make my Apo Isabelinos realize that the gains we made in the past four years of my tenure have to be preserved by much the same way that they have been achieved ? the wise use of our right to suffrage.
I hope to be able to convince them and make them realize that it does not matter if the candidate is I or some other person. I cannot be here forever. Don?t I always joke (that) I am single and (Isabelinos) are in no danger of my own dynasty? What?s important is they choose very carefully and wisely among the alternatives given to them.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award, take note, is not just a personal recognition but also [a recognition] of our voters? action.
I hope to encourage and challenge them to [exercise their right to choose their leaders and become partners in governance] so the first and second time that they actually did it will lead to a third, fourth time until it becomes ?Tatak Isabelino.? I know this is a big challenge but we have already proven that it can be done.
I also hope to gain a lot of headway in providing alternative livelihood for our people living in or near the Sierra Madre so that we could finally stop the rapid destruction of this last biggest remaining forest cover in the country.