The best president we never had

Published August 18, 2021, 7:00 AM

by Milwida Guevara

The excitement in the air was palpable.  CSOs (civil society organizations) gathered at the Ateneo Auditorium to proclaim the candidate whom we thought would be our best President.   After years of bad governance, the country needed a fresh start.  We chose a man who was greatly respected not only in the Philippines, but all over the world for his democratic leadership.  From a small municipality ridden with graft, he nurtured it to become progressive, clean, safe and beautiful.  His dream for a “Maogmang Lugar” had become real.

The streamers were ready to be unfurled.  The triumvirate, Yoly, Marilyn, and Rocky of Campaigns and Grey created a jingle which was about to be played.  The applause was thunderous as I called his name, “Jesse Robredo,” the next President of the Philippines.  With his head bowed, he approached the podium and said, “I am a proud member of the Liberal Party, and my Mar Roxas is my candidate for the Presidency.”

This was Jesse—humble, selfless, and capable.

He was my first grantee when I managed the Education Portfolio of the Ford Foundation.  He told me that he nearly fell off his chair when I called him up to offer a grant.  We had an unfriendly argument when I was Undersecretary.  With a bloated ego, I found it hard to accept a Mayor who questioned my decision.  But I was a silent witness to how he made the citizens of Naga the owner of governance.  He created the Citizens Charter to inform every citizen of the services they are entitled to from the city government.  He defined where, how, the manner, and the period within which the service should be delivered. The Charter made every City employee accountable for the job which he/she had to perform.  He organized a structure where residents can participate in evaluating proposed legislations, the allocation of the budget and procurement of goods and services.  His dream of empowerment became true with the creation of People’s Council.  He consulted residents on major decisions on whether infrastructure projects should be financed through borrowings or through increased taxes.  The people chose the latter.  Naga is probably one of the few places where people pay their taxes willingly.  They knew the goods and services that their taxes financed. Mayor Jesse’s administration was the most transparent.  Even the cost of a cold tablet that government procured was posted in their website.  He was the pioneer in transparency and participatory governance. In its infancy stage, Naga was already on e-governance.  Transactions with the city government were streamlined and computerized. 

Jesse was leadership in action.  He was the last man on the streets to see to it that people were safe and protected from an impending typhoon.  He was the first on the streets to clean the debris the morning after.  He did not hesitate to alight from a vehicle to direct traffic. VP Leni told stories of how she drove the car with him around the city every evening because Jesse wanted to be sure that every light on the street was functioning well.  This was one of his indicators that the personnel in-charge was on the job.

The grant I gave him did not come easy.  I asked him how the children of Naga performed in the National Achievement Test (NAT).  He did not know their scores.  All he knew was what the Superintendent told him.  The children ranked first in the region and had won several medals in “Palarong Pambansa.”  His face turned red when I told him that children’s average NAT score was 55%.  Their children were not served well.  “Pinakamataas pala kami sa mga mahihina!”  (We were first among the weak) he sighed.  It became his battle cry for Reinventing Local School Boards.  The education of children was topmost in his governance agenda.  He led programs to keep children in school and help them develop skills in reading, science, and math.  “Most of all, they must learn to become good persons.”

He went from school to school to engage the citizens in working together to provide every child with an opportunity to learn better. He consulted them on children’s difficulties and what can be done.  He was the first to come up with the concept of conditional cash transfer.  Parents of children at risk got a kilo of rice for every week of their perfect attendance.  He greatly believed in incentives rather than punishment.  Residents should see the benefits from doing good as well as the disadvantages from doing bad.  When he became Secretary of Local Governments, he introduced the “Seal of Good Housekeeping” to keep all local governments on board with his governance agenda.  The indicators were simple: a clean bill of audit from the COA, and transparency in the budget.  He believed in simplicity and taking steps one at a time.

Jesse was not for this world.  He was never attracted to wealth and power.  He had only a set of polo shirts – two of which came from Synergeia.  He had a simple home.  He feasted on street- food when we travelled to Sulu and never complained about musty hotel rooms.  He took the bus to catch early morning flights and appeared fresh from a shower.  This constantly intrigued us. VP Leni told me that he paid P10.00 to a gasoline boy so he can use the shower room in gas stations.  He put his thumbs down for a US30.00 taxi cab fare in Washington and took the train that went North when we were going South.  But he felt so guilty for not having enough money to drop in the collection box in the church.  He returned the following morning and donated his per diem.

Nine years after his death, my eyes still tear up when I remember him.  I feel so sad to think of what the country could have been had he been our President.  A week before his death, I broached the idea of him running as President.  He surprised me with his reaction. “Ma’am, pag-usapan na natin.”( Let’s talk about it)

Jesse always believed that everything happens for a reason.  He would say “Hanapin ang saysay.” (Discover the meaning and relevance).  We must find that reason.

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