SOMETIME in 2013, I had the chance to spend an afternoon with Leni Robredo and daughters Aika and Jillian, most of it in a van driving around Naga, then in the airport, waiting for President Aquino to finish his tour of the province and take off for Manila.
Leni was then a widow of one year. Her husband, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, had died in a plane crash on his way home to Naga, a tragedy which, in a stroke of irony, brought the country some measure of good: Robredo’s style of governance was brought to the fore, and it thrust his lawyer-widow into the local political arena.
Leni was then running for a seat in Congress (third district of Camarines Sur), against an entrenched political dynasty. She would win that election—after good hard work, campaigning in Naga and seven municipalities, broken down into 186 barangays or more than 200,000 voting population.
Her grueling schedule would begin at the crack of dawn and run into the dead of night, spent meeting with the local leaders who, in the first place, were the ones who convinced her to run.
It was apparent, even then, how Leni was immersed in grassroots politics. She loved working with the community, its formal and unofficial structure.
She had been exposed to the people, owing mainly to her husband’s tsinelas brand of governance, the imagery of the flip-flops conveying strongly her husband’s philosophy of politics and service.
She ran her campaign and won her candidacy on the mobilized strength of volunteers.
As we spent hours with her in the van, we realized how even as she continued her husband’s commitment to serve the people, Leni kept her three daughters close to her, they who had just lost their father.
She took Aika and Jillian with her on the campaign trail, with Patricia still in school in Manila then. She and her two daughters would take the bus to Manila on weekends to be with Patricia.
When she began work in Congress, it would be the reverse—she and her girls would take the bus back to Naga on weekends. This routine has become so established, she told us, so that she and her regular bus mates called themselves classmates as if they were in a regular school class.
That afternoon, driving around the city on our way to the airport, I saw how downhome simple the mother and her daughters were. We stopped by the store to buy a bag of toasted siopao her daughters loved and which she would share later with her community leaders. That was my introduction to Naga’s famous toasted siopao.
We talked about how she was adjusting to a life without Jesse, and how she was filling in his role as father. In between we would tease Jillian, then 13, about Daniel Padilla, since the teen idol was—and still is, we learned—her big crush. It was amusing to see a mother dealing with her squealing daughter.
Interestingly, presidential candidate Mar Roxas has reportedly tapped Daniel to be a celeb endorser. Then, as now, Leni chuckled every time the topic of her “baby’s” crush comes up.
When it was brought up at her dinner with Inquirer editors last Thursday, she said that yes, she hopes Jillian would get to meet Daniel this time.
To this day, what I remember most about my private time in the van with Leni was her talking about having to choose a high school in Manila for Jillian. Would it be a private all-girls school known for its academic excellence, or a public school known for its meritorious scholarship?
She was afraid that putting Jillian in an exclusive girls’ school might give her an elitist orientation, and her family wasn’t at all sosyal. I assured her that that exclusive school wasn’t at all elitist, and that it has been known all these years for its social orientation. Either choice, I gave my two cents’ worth, would be OK.
The next time I saw Leni at a Palace function, she told me that she chose the state-run high school.
That close encounter with her in the van made me realize how, when it came to social values and people orientation, this mother wasn’t just paying lip service. She lives it in how she raises her daughters.
Last Thursday at the Inquirer dinner, she mentioned how Jillian remains her baby and how they continue to sleep on the same bed, holding each other’s hand to sleep.
She wasn’t a stay-at-home wife to Jesse. She practiced law focusing on cases involving women and children. Even in her law practice, she was committed to an advocacy.
In last Thursday’s dinner, it was impressive how Leni answered questions knowledgeably, with great clarity (she seems like a clear thinker), and always with endearing candor.
It was almost effortless, the way she tackled hot-button issues such as FOI, “daang matuwid,” Mar Roxas, PNoy, the “Yolanda” disaster.
These will be reported on the front page so we don’t need to go into details here. What we can say is how she could go into the nuts and bolts of the antipoverty campaign of the Aquino administration, how at her local level, they felt the effects of “daang matuwid.”
What struck me was what she said—how “the social justice program is seen (by this government), as an investment (in the future) and not as an expense.”
If ever she felt the land mines in the Q and A, she didn’t blink. Like, asked if she got along well with Korina Sanchez-Roxas, she said in a snap: “Very well.”
She recalled how in the days she was trying to decide whether or not to heed the clamor for her vice-presidential candidacy, she kept on wishing that Jesse would appear to her in her dream. But he never did.
She said the only time Jesse figured in her dream was when she was about to run for Congress. The dream scene was their nightly ritual of brushing their teeth together before the mirror—when they would glance at the mirror together and “converse.” In that dream she was asking for Jesse’s advice on her impending candidacy. She woke up remembering what Jesse said in that dream— “Kaya mo na ’yan.”
She now assumes he has the same advice this time around.
But then, she acknowledged at that dinner how running for national office is a different ball game. People’s awareness of her is low. She is a candidate who doesn’t sing and dance, literally.
She is up against great odds.
Values-centered candidates like Leni remind us that when we vote, it is not really so much who we vote for, as what we vote for. What sort of tomorrow will a candidate bring?
What, not who.