By JOHN TRIA
My memory of Nene Pimentel will always be etched as a child and frequent visitor to Cagayan de Oro in the 1980s. I vividly remember his 1984 campaign for assemblyman of the Batasang Pambansa. My late mother, who was a niece of his predecessor Mayor Justiniano Borja, took me to Divisoria in the city to witness the march in the final push of a successful campaign.
I asked my mother who Nene Pimentel was.
The answers left me baffled. Realizing that he campaigned while under house arrest left my naïve child’s mind wondering why that was the case, given that he was the incumbent mayor of the city. “How could he be a mayor and be under arrest…?”
No one could answer that complicated question.
Looking back, Cagayan de Oro at that time was perhaps the only major Philippine city that had an administration opposed to the Marcos regime, a situation that guaranteed that little support was expected. Government-controlled Philippine airlines then had no discounted “bulilit” flights to the city, leaving residents no choice but to pay full fare.
Nene took harassment and prejudice in stride. A friend opines that the fact that he was arrested four times on what were essentially trumped-up charges, and the reality that he had to fight for his election even after election day only shows that the Manila political establishment at those times may have treated him as a “provinciano” who they could play around with, since unlike his contemporaries in the opposition to the Marcos regime, he never went to Manila’s elite schools and was not in their “old boy networks”.
Despite this being true or not, his greatest lesson is the example that being a “democracy icon” means you have to deliver on the results, not just the soundbites of governance. “Walking the talk” is something that many activists and political leaders need to understand.
He was tough in his advocacy for grassroots democratization and making government deliver for the people. As mayor, he oversaw vital infrastructure that modernized Cagayan de Oro, like the Agora Central Bus terminal, a measure that many other cities followed.
If he could not achieve higher budgetary allocations for the island as senator, he won measures to help its local governments earn more to serve their people’s needs.
The Local Government Code he authored became the most influential piece of legislation in the last 50 years. The success of many local governments in being frontline service providers to their constituents has redrawn the way governance is done in many areas, especially coming from long-neglected Mindanao.
His other legacy is exposing the “dagdag-bawas” schemes that saw him lose the supposedly clean post-EDSA 1995 senatorial elections was one of the issues that forced us to adopt automated polls.
The folksy and consistent way he handled these struggles and overcame the political noise bore fruit. How this legacy is implemented in our time will be up to us.
We will receive a breath of fresh air with new ports and airports. This all show governments desire to make travel more seamless and convenient.
I hope government reviews the PPP proposals for these projects carefully so that we will not be saddled with future debts in case they are unsuccessful.
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