Jesse Robredo: Profile of a mayor

This article is based on a chapter from the book, "Frontline Leadership: Stories of 5 Local Chief Executives" published by the Ateneo School of Government and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in 2007.

MANILA, Philippines - At 35 years old, Jonathan Chua is already a veteran of countless street demonstrations. A Leftwing radical from Caloocan, Chua had always treated government officials with cynicism and suspicion, believing they are all cut from the same cloth.

“Pare-pereho lang ang mga ‘yan,” he would often remark. (They’re all the same.)

Chua, however, had a political metanoia in late 2006, when he was invited to attend a basic sectors’ conference in Naga City. Before returning to Manila, Chua and a few others went to City Hall to pay a courtesy call to then Mayor Jesse Robredo.

Unaware of the Mayor’s background, the very first thing that caught Chua’s attention was the attire that Robredo wore on that day, which consisted of a blue polo jacket and a pair of faded denim pants. Hoping to pull a fast one on the mayor, Chua broke into a sarcastic grin and said, “Sir, ok ang suot natin, ah! Parang konduktor lang.” (Sir, what you're wearing looks good! You look like a bus conductor.)

Unperturbed, Robredo simply gave a gentle smile and replied, “Oo nga, eh. Pero hindi naman ‘yan ang mahalaga. Ang mahalaga, ang makapaglingkod tayo nang tapat sa taumbayan” (That’s true. But that's not important. What’s important is that we are able to serve our people with honesty and integrity.)

Not expecting such a reaction from the mayor of a bustling urban center, Robredo’s words caught Chua by surprise.

“Hindi ko akalain na meron pa palang matitinong tao sa gobyerno (I didn’t expect to still find good people in government)," Chua quips as he recalls that incident, adding that since then, he began referring to Robredo as “Idol.”

Such disarming simplicity is, of course, quintessential Robredo. And that is perhaps the main reason why he was able to endear himself to his constituents, and to all those who have met and worked with him throughout the years that he had served as Naga mayor and DILG secretary.

Late bloomer

Ironically, in spite of his short yet stellar political career, no one (not even his closest family members) ever expected Robredo to enter public service. One of his cousins even described him as a “late bloomer” since Robredo initially did not display any political inclination, nor did he perform particularly well while he was still in college and high school.

In fact, Robredo shied away from politics during his student days, preferring instead to spend his free time playing basketball either with his neighbors or as part of the De La Salle Engineering basketball team.

For the most part, Robredo remained largely apolitical until August 1983, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr was gunned down as he was stepping out of an airplane. Two days after the assassination, Robredo queued outside the Aquino home in Quezon City to pay his respects to a fallen hero. With that simple act of defiance, Robredo soon found himself marching along Ayala Avenue, joining thousands of Filipinos calling for the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of democracy in the country.

After EDSA 1, Robredo returned to Naga, and in April 1986 was appointed executive director of the Bicol River Basin Development Program (BRBDP). A former employee of San Miguel Corp, Robredo quickly brought a new sense of dynamism to BRBDP by infusing management principles and techniques he had learned from the corporate world and from his masteral studies in business administration (MBA) at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Two years later, in 1988, Robredo ran for mayor and narrowly won over his closest electoral opponent with just 947 votes. Garnering barely 24% of the total number of votes, Robredo was a minority mayor with only 4 allies in the Sangguniang Panlungsod (City Council).

Undeterred, he again introduced his practice of corporate management — this time to City Hall. Early in his term, Robredo began dismantling the system of political patronage by requiring all City Hall employees to undergo an aptitude test, and by introducing a merit-based system for hiring and promotion.

Leadership by example

But apart from his superb managerial skills, Robredo also displayed his brand of hands-on leadership by being an assiduous, no-nonsense public servant. Rising up at 5 in the morning, he would depart for City Hall by 7 am and would be seen working at his desk until 5 pm. By combining administrative knowhow with his excellent work ethic, Robredo was soon perceived by his colleagues as a “born problem-solver.”

Naga’s long-time Vice Mayor Gabriel Bordado claims that Robredo’s ability to find solutions is due to his result-oriented attitude and his “scientific way of approaching problems.”

His wife Leni, on the other hand, attributes this to her late husband’s uncanny use of logic to convince people. “Sa mga problema, mabilis siyang mag-isip (He can think quickly when confronted with problems),” Leni attests.

Such qualities are further complemented by his “high energy level” and his hands-on approach to city management. This was witnessed firsthand by Naga’s former city administrator Frank Mendoza.

He said, “Nauuna pa siya sa bumbero kung may sunog, baha o aksidente. 'Pag may bagyo, nasa labas siya, naglilinis, nagpapala. Masaya siyang gawin ang mga mundane tasks.” (He always arrives earlier than the firefighters every time there is a fire, a flood or an accident. If there’s a typhoon, he's out on the streets cleaning and shoveling. He's quite happy doing mundane tasks.)

Characterizing his approach as “leadership by example,” Vice Mayor Bordado narrates how Robredo and the entire City Council dealt with the destruction brought about by Typhoon Monang in 1993:

All the councilors and (top) officials were cleaning the darkest parts of the city. The people loved him because of that…People had to be ashamed; the mayor himself was cleaning the streets. So the people also worked. Even during fires, cleaning up the river, he’s always at the forefront. The people can see that.

This image of Robredo has become so iconic that newspaper columnist and fellow Bicolano Conrado de Quiros depicted him as a “solitary figure shoveling the muck of the city.”

Night watch

Robredo, however, was not only an excellent manager; he was also an astute politician. Once the clock ticked at 5:00 pm, he would immediately tell his secretary, “Ang listahan” (the catalog)," which contained the list of wakes that he would have to attend for the night.

These evening rituals, according to Robredo, have a political purpose, since they ensure his visibility to the public and further endear him to the people. “Ito ‘yung traditional part ng politics,” he added. (This is the traditional part of politics.)

His supporters, however, are quick to emphasize that there was nothing bogus or contrived in his display of sympathy and solicitude. Quite the contrary, these were an outcome of his approachability and his natural ability to connect with people.

In his recollection, Robredo admitted that while he was still mayor, he would attend an average of 5 wakes a day, and would do so even during holidays. But despite the hand-pressing and expression of condolences, not once did he hand out money to the bereaved. Instead, Robredo and his team set up a process specifically designed to provide assistance to the relatives of the deceased:

"Yung patay, ang standard niyan, pupunta ‘yan sa office, pipirma lang, may P500 sa DSWD. 'Pag pumunta ako sa patay, oras lang talaga."

(When it comes to the deceased, the standard is, a family member goes to the office, signs a receipt and then receives P500 from the Department of Social Welfare and Development. When I go to a wake, time is the only thing that I spend.)

'Guyom na palad'

Robredo’s leadership style, however, had earned him quite a number of detractors who describe him as “kuripot” or “super-kuripot.” He, however, did not seem to mind, replying instead that, “I may be kuripot, but rightfully so.”

In fact, Robredo’s being a miser has become so legendary among his fellow Nagueños that he was often jokingly referred to as the president of the Guyom na Palad (Misers' Foundation).

Though a self-confessed miser, Robredo claims that this attitude of his springs from his careful handling of taxpayers’ money. As he once attested, the entire city government strictly adheres to procedures, issuing receipts for every conceivable transaction it engages in.

“We will not pay for these expenses (without proper accounting),” Robredo explains. “Because in our line of work, once we pay (without accounting), we will begin to get money which doesn’t belong to us.”

His careful attitude towards money is best summed up in an anecdote once shared by his longtime colleague Frank Mendoza: One time, after officiating a wedding, he was given a thick envelope containing P200,000. Nobody knew about it. When he got back to City Hall, he ordered that a receipt be issued to the couple, saying that the money will be used for the construction of a new school building.

Naga transformed

Unsurprisingly, Robredo’s miserliness took its toll on City Hall, one of the smallest and most dilapidated government buildings in the whole Bicol region. Robredo however was unfazed, saying, “Bakit ako gagasta ng maraming pera para sa City Hall? Ipapagawa ko na lang ng kalsada. Ano’ng returns sa pagpapaganda ng City Hall?” (Why should I spend so much money for City Hall? I’ll just use it for road construction. What returns shall we get from remodeling City Hall?)

Despite the physical condition of their office building, Robredo’s tight fiscal discipline generated a lot of savings for the city government. His administration’s policy of “fiscal prudence” and bureaucratic efficiency also attracted numerous investors, allowing Naga to eventually outpace its longtime rival Legazpi City.

In fact, after more than a decade since Robredo’s election as mayor, Naga’s gross city product even outpaced the country’s GNP by 115%, while its average household income was 42% higher than the national average and 126% higher than the Bicol average. And even at the height of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when the rest of the country was experiencing economic decline, Naga was able to enjoy a growth rate of 6.5%.

But Robredo’s hometown was not always the economic dynamo that it is now. In fact, when he first took over as mayor in 1988, Naga was a typical third-class city with a budget deficit of P1 million.

By successfully transforming Naga from provincial backwater to premiere city, Robredo was given the highly prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in August 2000. Not surprisingly, even his beloved City was also able to earn its own list of citations — winning more than 140 regional, national and international awards for government efficiency and people’s participation.

As Vice Mayor Bordado jokingly remarks, “Kulang na lang URIAN at FAMAS sa list ng mga awards (URIAN and FAMAS are the only ones we don't have in our list of awards)."

'Ubos kung Ubos! Gabos kung gabos!'

With all that he has done for Naga, Robredo’s grateful kababayans have repeatedly elected him as their mayor, defeating all those who tried to challenge him at the polls. With his sterling political record, Robredo became so influential in Naga politics that since his first reelection bid in 1993, his choices for vice mayor and councilors all emerged victorious.

With his election battle cry, “Ubos kung Ubos! Gabos kung Gabos!” (All or Nothing), Robredo time and again called on the electorate to allow his slate a clean sweep. But more than being a catchy slogan, Robredo’s campaign mantra also reveals his inner self: kind, humble and approachable, but one who gives no quarter when fighting trapo politics.

As he explained in one speaking engagement, it is not his job to be generous to his opponents. He expects bad people to be smart and to fight hard; so to defeat them, good people should not only be smarter, they should also fight harder.

After assuming his last post as DILG secretary, Robredo continued to exert significant influence over Naga politics. In fact, his expected endorsement of Bordado’s congressional bid was viewed as extremely critical in giving his long-time friend and ally a fighting chance to win over the chosen candidate of the Villafuertes -- Camarines Sur’s dominant political clan.

With Robredo’s untimely demise, Robredo’s allies and supporters will surely feel the void that he has left since his plane went down over the waters of Masbate more than a week ago. His death will test whether his team of reform-minded advocates can still carry on his defiant message of “Ubos kung Ubos! Gabos kung Gabos!” even without him, or whether they would allow this battle mantra to fade into oblivion.

Jesse Robredo has certainly left a gaping hole, not only in Naga politics, but in the entire country as well. But if Naga is to remain faithful to the memory of one of its greatest sons, then it has no choice but to rise up to the occasion. For Bordado on the other hand, he will have to face the challenge of dismantling Robredo’s long-time political foes to prove that his friend’s life and death will continue to make a difference in the country.

And Robredo, who had worked tirelessly in their behalf, would expect nothing less from his beloved Nagueños and from his fellow Filipinos. - Rappler.com 

This article was first published in http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/contributions/11299-jesse-robredo-profile-of-a-mayor.