Naga City’s Mayor Jesse

In 2000 the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation chose Naga City Mayor Jesse M. Robredo as its awardee for government service.  The award citation summed up the reason for giving him the award thus: “In electing Jesse Robredo to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his giving credence to the promise of democracy by demonstrating that effective city management is compatible with yielding power to the people.”

Two important concepts are highlighted here—democracy and effective city management.  They don’t always go together, as we know only too well in this country.  It was Mayor Jesse’s singular achievement that he not only brought them together but also made each the precondition for the other.

Armed with modern managerial skills, a mayor might strive to be democratic and participatory, and achieve nothing. Governance can get mired in endless consultation, giving power brokers the chance to exploit the resulting confusion.  Most mayors who have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish usually find it simpler to dispense with consultation altogether, preferring to be assessed in terms of quick and tangible results. As a nation, we tend to be in awe of the latter.  We reserve our praises for political leaders who are strong-willed, decisive, brave and benevolent—qualities that compensate for our own sense of powerlessness.

Jesse Robredo broke into politics in a time of transition.  The 1986 People Power Revolution that ended the Marcos dictatorship and catapulted Cory Aquino to the presidency moved young idealistic and educated Filipinos like him to contribute their talents to the ongoing social transformation. This was the generation that was politically awakened by the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino.

Almost as soon as the new Cory government was installed, the young Jesse gave up a high-paying job at San Miguel Corp. to accept the invitation of his uncle, Camarines Sur Gov. Luis Villafuerte, for him to be the program director of the foreign-funded Bicol River Basin Development Project. This assignment was right up his alley. He saw it as an opportunity to make full use of his two degrees from De la Salle—one in mechanical engineering and the other in industrial management engineering—and his MBA from the University of the Philippines.  He hoped to return to his job in San Miguel after finishing what he thought would be a brief stint in public service.

It didn’t take long for him to realize that what the challenge of social transformation demanded of Manila-based professionals like him was a lifelong commitment, not a year-long provincial sabbatical.  In his first few months at his job, he saw how the old political habits persisted even after the Edsa revolution.  Thinking that he was occupying a sinecure to which he was not entitled, the appointing powers in Manila tried to remove Jesse from his position to accommodate the nephew of a former senator.  He took them to court, wondering if indeed “this was a different time and a different world.”  The court sustained him.

In the 1988 local elections, the first after the ratification of the new Constitution, his uncle, the governor, persuaded him to join the mayoralty race in Naga. Jesse found himself caught in the political rivalry of two influential families—the Villafuertes and the Rocos.  He won by a very slim margin.  Only 29, he worked very hard to prove himself worthy of the position. Naga never saw a more hardworking mayor.  He was unbeatable in the succeeding elections.  His reformist vision put him at loggerheads with his erstwhile political patrons who demanded loyalty.  Rather than meekly submit to the values of a patronage-driven culture, he chose to be his own man, working with civil society so he could stand up to the political kingpins he dared to defy.

What we have here is a fine example of a leader who tapped the connections of traditional society to get elected, and then proceeded to challenge the entrenched ways of a system in transition in order to institutionalize modern governance.  When Jesse took over as mayor of Naga, the place had deteriorated into a third-class city.  Gambling and drug syndicates operated freely.  The city government could not raise enough revenue to fund its services for the underprivileged.  The city center was choking from its own chaotic traffic.  At the end of his third term, Mayor Jesse had managed to restore his city to first-class status, a regional center of higher education and commerce, and a model of competent and participatory local governance.  When it was time for him to step down, he refused to start a dynasty by anointing his wife or a close relative as successor.

In 1998, he left for Harvard to get a masters degree in public administration.  The school could well have given him a doctorate purely on the basis of what he had done for Naga.  Theories of modern governance seldom take into account the complex realities that reformist practitioners in transitional societies must confront in the field. Jesse learned by doing.  His thesis would have been his own city and his own experience as an elected public servant. His life is a lesson on how to succeed in the world of electoral politics without losing one’s vision and values. As mayor, he showed that it is possible to run a city well by actively involving ordinary citizens in its affairs.

It is fortunate that the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation recognized the significance of his work while he was still very much around. Now that he is gone, we can pay him the highest tribute by replicating in the rest of the country what he had done for Naga.