By Niki Yarte
Most Filipinos perceive our brand of politics as dirty and unethical, and by direct correlation, Filipino politicians are mostly corrupt and self-serving. The most recent P10-billion pork barrel scam reinforces this perception and further alienates the electorate from the self-proclaimed public servants.
Yet every now and then we see extraordinary individuals who slay the dragons of traditional politics and its attendant tentacles – self-aggrandizement, abuse of power, incompetence – and challenge the status quo. Their vision, courage and determination help restore the people’s hope in politics and government. Among such exceptional leaders are five mayors from around the country whose commonality involves the successful transformation of their respective cities as well as the unique demeanor with which they approached their office.
Arsenio H. Lacson, Manila, 1952-1962
The first mayor of Manila to be elected to three terms, Arsenio H. Lacson inherited a staggering debt of more than P20 million when he took over City Hall in 1951 after serving as congressman for one term. By 1959 he had managed to turn the city’s finances around. Lacson embarked on crusades to maintain peace and order and good government in Manila, firing incompetent employees and corrupt policemen.
All throughout his 10 years as mayor, Lacson maintained his radio program where he lambasted politicians of all stripes and dissected local and national issues. The programs were pre-recorded in order to edit out his expletives and occasional foul language. Sporting a broken nose from his amateur boxing days and his trademark aviator sunglasses, he earned the nickname “Arsenic” for his sharp tongue and penchant for whiskey even in daylight hours. He incurred the ire of Presidents Roxas and Quirino for his scathing criticism of their administrations. It was he who famously described then-neophyte councilor Ernesto Maceda, “so young yet so corrupt”.
Had Lacson not suffered a fatal heart attack in 1962, the Nacionalista Party would’ve fielded him against President Diosdado Macapagal in the 1965 presidential elections instead of another politico he had humiliated when they served together in Congress – Ferdinand Marcos.
Richard Gordon, Olongapo City, 1980-1986, 1988–1998
When Dick Gordon was first elected, Olongapo was known as “Sin City” for the rampant prostitution and rowdy night clubs in its infamous Red Light District, populated by GIs from the US naval base in nearby Subic. Under his leadership, Olongapo became a “model city” through his innovative programs such as raising police accountability through ID systems, proper health and sanitation, waste management and the strict observance of color-coding in public transport.
But Gordon’s greatest challenges came in 1991: first, in June, when the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo buried the city in 14 inches of wet ash, and three months later, when the Philippine Senate voted to end the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, and with it, the 40,000 local jobs that the naval base generated. In his characteristic go-go attitude, Gordon rallied the people of Olongapo to literally rise from the ashes and rebuild the city. Volunteerism became the rallying cry. At the same time, Gordon lobbied for the conversion of the Subic naval base into a free port, leading to the establishment of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone and its administrative body, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
In 1993 President Cory Aquino appointed Gordon as the first SBMA administrator while concurrently serving as Olongapo mayor. A year later Gordon was forced to give up his mayoralty post in favor of SBMA. He went on to build Subic Freeport Zone into a new investment hub in Southeast Asia.
Rodrigo Duterte, Davao City, 1988-1998, 2001-2010, 2013-present
Dubbed “The Punisher” by Time Magazine for his unrelenting stance against criminals, Rudy Duterte is credited for transforming Davao City’s reputation as “the murder capital of the Philippines” to being one of the country’s most peaceful cities. His no-nonsense drive against criminality is legendary: giving a barangay captain 48 hours to clean up illegal drug activities in his area, offering a P5-million reward for the head “on ice” of a suspected leader of a carnapping syndicate, and issuing a shoot-to-kill order against armed criminals who enter the city.
Duterte’s “police mentality” has earned the indignation of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and human rights groups who accuse him of extrajudicial killings. The Human Rights Watch labeled him as “someone who openly advocates murder to bring peace and prosperity.”
While the mayor would not admit to the scores of suspected vigilante killings, he takes pride in the “cleansing” of the city, earning commendation from ordinary citizens and the business community. Depending on who you ask, Duterte is either a model crime fighter or a vigilante killer.
Jesse Robredo, Naga City, 1988-1998, 2001-2010
Jesse Robredo was notable not just for his contributions to his city but also for lacking the boastful and extravagant style of the typical politician. He was the antithesis of trapo, the traditional politician: he was humble, lived a modest life, listened before he barked orders, abhorred the trappings of power. He would punch in his own time card at City Hall and wear the same uniform required of city employees. He would often be seen in public without an entourage or security detail, taking public transportation even to official functions, and even sweeping the streets.
Today, Naga is considered one of the most business-friendly and livable cities in the country. Poverty and unemployment levels are significantly lower than the national average, while literacy and sanitation levels greatly improved. A successful housing program distributed 8,000 homes to alleviate rampant squatting.
But the most enduring legacies of Robredo are good governance and people empowerment. He established the Naga City People’s Council that institutionalized the participation of the people in the development process and installed a system for government transparency and accountability. He received the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service – the only local official in the country to be so honored – for “demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people”.
Edward Hagedorn, Puerto Princesa City, 1992-2001, 2002-2013
A self-confessed ex-gangster, Edward Hagedorn likens his personal transformation to the physical rebirth of Puerto Princesa. Once engaged in illegal logging and gambling operations, he turned his back on these nefarious activities after he was elected mayor. Environmental protection and sustainable tourism became his rallying cry, spearheading such projects as Bantay Puerto (Puerto Princesa Watch) and Oplan Linis (Clean and Green Campaign).
Under his leadership, Puerto Princesa became one of the major eco-tourism destinations in the Philippines. The city also became a global model for environment protection, winning several global recognition and awards. Locally, Puerto Princesa has earned the title as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.
In a landmark case, Hagedorn declared a state of calamity – a function that only the President can enact – so he could use emergency funds to provide livestock and farm implements to farmers who had lost their main source of livelihood after ordering them to cease their slash-and-burn (kaingin) practices. Because Hagedorn’s actions were against existing laws at the time, he was set to face a case filed by the Ombudsman. The complaint was set aside when legislators intervened, passing a law that allowed local government units to follow Hagedorn’s resourcefulness.