Leni Robredo: Best man may be this woman
One of Liberal Party (LP) vice presidential candidate Leni Robredo’s unforgettable childhood encounters occurred during a visit to the jailhouse in her hometown, Naga, around Christmas four decades ago.
The 7-year-old joined her father Antonio, a lawyer, on a trip in their old Volkswagen Beetle to fetch an elderly client. “My father paid his bail,” Robredo said, recalling the rhythmic clacking of typewriters in the courthouse.
When the tall and emaciated inmate walked out free, the curious girl scooted to the backseat to make room for him in the car. He ended up as a guest in the Gerona house that night, as he had nowhere to sleep, Robredo said in an interview.
Robredo, who turned 51 on Saturday, remembered little else about the man, except for how he thanked her family for years afterward. “During fiesta, he would drop by with a sack of sweet potatoes or bananas,” she said, her eyes lighting up at the memory.
That prison visit was her first exposure to people who lived “at the seams of society,” said the Camarines Sur congresswoman.
It stirred her imagination about the possibilities of alternative lawyering, a path her father, a traditional lawyer who punched in at a law firm, never took.
But Robredo’s political awakening would not happen until decades later when she met—and lost—a man named Jesse.
Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona was born on April 23, 1964, the eldest of three children of the late Bicol Regional Trial Court Judge Antonio Gerona Sr. and Salvacion Sto. Tomas Gerona, an English professor who taught her whole life at Universidad de Santa Isabel, where Robredo finished primary school.
She grew up with a brother and a sister under the guidance of big-hearted parents who spared them the rod. Her father, who died in 2013, was a huge influence, but it was her mother whom she considered her “peg,” or the one whose footsteps she wished to follow.
Robredo studied economics at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, one of the bastions of student activism, where she regularly joined protests against the Marcos dictatorship. She graduated in 1986.
Her father, who rose up the judicial ladder after being appointed municipal trial court judge by former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1980, wished for Robredo to immediately take up law and join the family’s roster of barristers.
But she had other plans.
Applying for a job at the Bicol River Basin Development Program, she met her first boss, Jesse Robredo, seven years her senior. She came in for the job interview brandishing a handwritten recommendation from
—oddly enough—then acting Camarines Sur Gov. Luis Villafuerte, a distant relative who would become a political nemesis.
“What do you need this for?” Jesse snapped after reading the note. “Don’t you realize it’s a different time?”
His words were a splash of cold water to Robredo. “At the end of the interview, he said the position had already been filled,” she said wryly. She remembered thinking: “What did I say wrong?”
But weeks later, she got a call—and then an offer—from him for a different position. To her friends’ amusement, Robredo found herself working at a desk right inside the office of the “perfectionist and slave driver” Jesse, who worked in a different department.
What followed was a whirlwind courtship and romance, and a marriage proposal a mere four months after their rough initial encounter. Nonplussed, her parents gave the lovestruck Robredo their blessing on condition that she would finish law.
Marriage and studies
In 1990, Robredo completed her law studies at University of Nueva Caceres. By then, she was already married to Jesse, with whom she would bear three daughters: Jessica Marie or “Aika,” Janine Patricia, or “Tricia,” and Jillian Therese, or “Jill.”
A graduate of management engineering at Ateneo de Manila University, Aika worked briefly at the Department of Transportation and Communications and then at the Office of Civil Defense. (She quit in November to help in her mother’s the campaign.)
Tricia is a freshman medical student at Ateneo, while Jill is in 10th grade at the Philippine Science High School.
Beneath her mother’s smiling façade, according to Aika, lies a core of steel, giving her vigor in her pursuits and helping her weather life’s disappointments.
In 1992, Robredo flunked the bar exams on her first try. She spoke of the experience before graduates of a Lucena college in March to drive home her message: “Learn to rise from failures.”
Pro bono lawyer
She passed the bar in 1997, joining the local Public Attorney’s Office to help people of her town who could not afford legal services.
But her work soon put her in the crosshairs of the Naga mayor—her husband.
“Jesse would arrest jueteng operators and criminals—and I would defend them,” she said to laughs at a recent rally.
She moved to Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal, or Saligan, an organization providing free legal aid to the needy. For her efforts, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption recognized Robredo as the most outstanding private prosecutor in 2009.
In 2010, Jesse, by then a Ramon Magsaysay laureate for his work in transforming Naga into a bustling urban hub, was handpicked by newly elected President Aquino to be his interior secretary, to much acclaim—and controversy.
In August 2012, two months after their 25th wedding anniversary, life in the Robredo household would change forever. The Piper Seneca plane carrying Jesse on his way home crashed into the sea off Masbate.
The future never seemed more uncertain, but in the media hysteria that followed, Robredo, now a widow at 47, was the picture of composure, showing a brave face while grieving in private.
Robredo’s grace during her family’s greatest crisis turned her into a household name. Soon a clamor for her to run for a congressional seat prompted her first foray into politics. She toppled a 40-year dynasty by defeating Nelly Villafuerte, the wife of Luis Villafuerte, in May 2013.
The junior lawmaker has passed three laws, including the Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act, and the Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act. She has championed legislation to institutionalize her husband’s full disclosure policy, barangay reforms, people’s participation in budget, and freedom of information.
To date, she has authored 37 and coauthored 124 bills and resolutions, and is vice chair of the committees on good government and public accountability, and on revision of laws.
In September last year, President Aquino and his chosen successor Mar Roxas wooed her to be the LP presidential standard-bearer’s vice presidential running mate, banking on her reputation as a quiet leader and the public’s enduring remembrance of Jesse’s legacy.
She was flabbergasted at the offer. “I kept throwing suggestions at them. How about [Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos]? Senator Frank [Drilon]? Leila de Lima?” she recalled.
Roxas, a family friend, implored her: “Just don’t say no yet.”
In the chaotic weeks that followed, Robredo found herself opening more and more to the idea. “It’s corny to say, but I felt like I was being called upon to do this,” she said.
The hardest part was convincing her daughters to take the plunge. “At some point, Aika told me it feels like Dad’s plane is missing again,” she said.
Two weeks before Decision Day, Robredo gathered daughters for a consultation with their spiritual adviser, Fr. Manoling Francisco, at Ateneo.
The talk, “full of crying and weeping,” took the entire morning, she recalled.
The Jesuit priest, acting “like a referee,” told the Robredo girls: “Your mom is finally stepping out of the shadow of your father’s legacy.”
On the campaign trail, Robredo speaks highly of Roxas and their campaigner in chief, President Aquino. But she has shown on more than one occasion that she is “no puppet of the LP,” Aika said.
Robredo is not afraid to take contrary positions. For instance, in response to the April 1 Kidapawan incident where riot police opened fire and killed three protesting farmers, Roxas had called for calm. But Robredo called for heads to roll.
What she considers the toughest questions from reporters are those that are trying to corner her into “saying something against the administration,” she said.
“I try to give credit where credit is due, but not to be an apologist for the government. I try to be honest, but not to be critical. That’s why I respect how the LP never called my attention [to my taking differing views],” she said.
‘Follow your instincts’
In traveling the unfamiliar road of national politics, she draws inspiration from her late husband. “What Jesse has taught me is you don’t have to follow well-laid formulas,” she said. “Follow your instincts; chart your own course. If you have good intentions, they will work out in the end.”
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