Moreno: Showbiz cool, Tondo smarts,‘ outsider’ edge
(Third of a series)
It’s pouring rain in Sorsogon’s capital, and 5,000 people are crammed in an auditorium. It is sweltering inside but Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso saunters in like a cool breeze, not a drop of sweat or rainwater on his crisp white shirt.
Sorsogon City, located near the tip of Bicol peninsula, is part of Vice President Leni Robredo’s home turf, but on this wet March morning, the Manila mayor would rather talk about another Bicolana.
“My wife, Dynee, is from Sorsogon, so you can consider me half a Bicolano,” Moreno says to approving cheers.
“I have five children. Want the sixth to be yours?” His joke meets howls from the girls and gaypeople, and their mothers in the audience. But the reporters near the stage don’t even look away from their phones – they’ve heard that before.
Then the Aksyon Demokratiko standard-bearer raises a hand and a hush falls over the crowd. “Time for real talk,” he says.
In casual relatable words, he offers himself as the alternative to the “reds” and the “yellow-pinks,” or the pro- and anti-Marcos forces, whose decades-long conflict, according to him, has been stunting the country’s growth.
“I’m available,” he says flirtatiously.
This is Moreno at his best, according to his chief tactician, Lito Banayo, who was adviser to another mayor gunning for Malacañang six years ago, Rodrigo Duterte.
“He has no pretenses, whether in private or in public, and speaks his mind – a real person,” the veteran PR man tells the Inquirer.
With roguish charm and ungrammatical English, the self-described “batang Tondo” delights in using street lingo and flipping word syllables, to endear himself to the public.
He tries to mimic one of his “inspirations,” Duterte, whose whirlwind run in 2016 kindled his own ambition. Except, at 47, he’s three decades younger and, Banayo says, not as crafty as the incumbent – “astute but not scheming or calculating.”
Even so, the former actor knows his strengths. He likens voters to “bulalo” beef that needs time and constant heat to patiently make tender. He flashes the “two joints” sign for weed to street kids. He talks about his boyhood days of scavenging for “pagpag,” or leftovers, in garbage bins. On stage, he gyrates like a macho dancer in the movies.
“Kuha n’ya ang kiliti ng tao,” a media handler says of “Yorme,” or just “Y,” his code name among staff. It means he knows how to titillate the masses.
Moreno’s promises border on hyperbole but he zeroes in on gut issues: 50-percent tax cuts on fuel and electricity, more hospitals, low-cost housing and support for schools.
He vows to improve internet connectivity across the islands, stop the conversion of farm lands into subdivisions, make credit available for micro, small and medium enterprises, stop China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea, assert the country’s historical claims to Sabah and pursue corruption cases past and present government officials.
Back at the rally in Sorsogon, Jonalyn Ajedo is holding up a “Switch to Isko” banner.
“He’s helpful to the poor and he’s done a lot of good for barangay health workers and health centers, such as providing medicines,” she says.
But something is amiss. Pulse Asia’s mid-March survey placed Moreno a distant third with an 8 percent voter preference behind Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s 56 percent and Robredo’s 24 percent.
On a late February afternoon in Cavite, Moreno declares himself the dark horse in the presidential race. “They have pedigree while I am a stray dog because I’m an outsider. But beware of stray dogs – they’ve got rabies.”
His audience laughs and applauds. In the following weeks, he recycles the joke, embracing the image of a rabid mutt fighting off a pack of purebreds. But that was an unwise metaphor for two reasons: First, none of his top rivals actually comes from an affluent clan, except Marcos with his family’s ill-gotten wealth. Second, rabies, as any mayor should know, has a 99.9-percent fatality rate.
Now, Moreno is hoping that his joke isn’t a foreshadowing of his own fate on May 9 against the politicians he disdains. His dismal poll numbers and the desertion of party-mates, allies and volunteers who once championed his cause, are not helping his cause.
How did it come to this?
It’s April 10, a Sunday in Moreno’s home city. A concert rally with thousands in attendance is being held in his honor featuring acts like Jimmy Bondoc and Mocha Girls.
He is joined by his Senate team: Jopet Sison, ex-Quezon City councilor and host of “Ipaglaban Mo;” Carl Balita, nurse, midwife and entrepreneur; Samira Gutoc, Marawi civic leader; and John Castriciones, ex-agrarian reform secretary. On hand as well is his running mate, Dr. Willie Ong, who acts the least like a politician but speaks with uncharacteristic bluntness for a physician.
On stage, Moreno in his rimless glasses looks ebullient but his voice betrays his exasperation. “Tama na, sobra na! Mamahinga na kayo! Iba naman! (Enough, that’s too much! Give it a rest! Give others a chance!),” he says, the same battlecry heard from Cory Aquino against Marcos’ father in the final days of the dictator.
Moreno says he offers peace of mind “because if the reds win, they will take revenge. If the yellows win, they will take revenge.”
At no point in his speech does he mention the man now in Malacañang. Why? Moreno doesn’t give a straight answer to the Inquirer. “Because we’re talking of the future tense,” he says. While the President is imperfect, “the problem today is not his doing alone, it’s because of this pandemic.”
His response creates a conundrum: How can he run on a platform to change the status quo when he embraces the one responsible for it?
This is the tragic contradiction of the Moreno campaign, according to Earl Parreño, author of the unofficial Duterte biography “Beyond Will and Power.”
“His problem is lack of authenticity,” he tells the Inquirer.
Parreño is not surprised that people gravitated toward Moreno when he declared his presidential aspiration because of his rags-to-riches story and his street-smart persona. “But if your message is incongruent with your image, you don’t come across as genuine,” he says.
It’s April 19, two days after the mayor’s disastrous Easter Sunday press conference at Peninsula Manila along with Sen. Panfilo Lacson and former defense chief Norberto Gonzales.
Moreno had hijacked what was billed as a united front with the two other presidential candidates to reject alleged attempts by Robredo to make them drop out of the race. He went off script, according to Lacson, and called on the Vice President to withdraw from the race, sparking a backlash that still rocks his campaign.
He was pilloried brutally on social media. Lacson distanced himself from his statement and Gonzales even apologized to Robredo.
On this sunny morning in Agusan del Sur, the atmosphere is thick with tension. Moreno tries to look unaffected by the recent fiasco as he meets the press, but even his own staff says privately that he’s too intense.
He bristles at the idea of apologizing to Robredo. “All my life, many people have bullied me, and even now these yellow-pinks are bullies. And I will not let go,” he says. “You are bullies and it has to stop.”
Behind him, a flushed Gutoc turns away from the cameras, as though willing the ground to swallow her up. Ong pats him on the arm, as if to say “enough.” The mayor ignores them.
Banayo admits Moreno can be stubborn. “He is very receptive to advice, listens intently, but makes his own decisions and even argues his point until you are convinced – quite persistent.”
But there’s palpable disappointment even among his believers and observers. “I miss the old laid-back Yorme,” says one TV reporter. “It’s hubris,” another chimes in, like a doctor announcing his diagnosis of an illness.
For the next two days, from Bohol to Rizal, Moreno continues to lash out, hackles raised, like the stray dog he identifies with, but wounded. He calls Robredo the “godmother of bullies.”
Banayo is working hard at damage control. He recalls that Duterte even cursed at the pope and joked about rape without hurting his candidacy six years earlier. He tells the Inquirer that Moreno is “particularly sensitive” when he feels he is the victim of underhanded tactics.
Much to the mayor’s frustration, the Vice President refuses to engage him.
“I won’t respond to his provocation,” Robredo says, perfectly channeling Napoleon. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.
The Inquirer series on the presidential candidates now focuses on the actor-politician also known as Isko Moreno, whose life story has been one of continuing metamorphosis—and whose campaign keeps revealing something new about “Yorme.”
I told you so, says Isko Moreno on shouting match between Marcos, Robredo supporters
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