After making the decision to run for Congress, Leni Robredo, a widow at 47, now stands on the cusp of history wondering if she can indeed cross into the world her husband had inhabited.
But the wooing of the heir to Jesse Robredo’s legacy had not been so easy. Had she been the average political animal driven by greed for power and glory, she might have announced she would follow her husband’s steps into politics way back in August.
It would have been perfect timing, with her riding on the crest of the nation’s grief over her husband’s untimely death, and propelled further by several nationwide movements that hoped to keep alive the Robredo legacy of servant leadership, transparency and accountability. She could only win a run for any office by a landslide.
Lawyer Manuel Teoxon, president of Jesse Robredo Lives, one of several movements organized to perpetuate the legacy of the late interior secretary: “Naga City’s 140,000 voters will support her and so will the neighboring municipalities.”
“If [Leni] wants it, she should run now while the Robredo phenomenon is still strong,” Alan Robles, political analyst and correspondent for the South China Morning Post, said at the time. “She can’t wait until the next election because [the phenomenon] will fade. It always does. Who remembers Lean Alejandro and Evelio Javier now? Even Ninoy Aquino is fast losing his luster,” he added.
After her husband’s death, Leni Robredo has become widely seen as the strongest unifying force that can break the stranglehold of the squabbling Villafuertes on Camarines Sur and bring a Liberal Party victory in the region.
Leni recently accepted an appointment as chief of the Liberal Party in Camarines Sur, bowing, according to the grapevine, to pressure from President Benigno Aquino III and new Interior Secretary Mar Roxas for her to fill the vacuum in the LP leadership in the province left by her husband’s death.
Until last Friday when she filed her certificate of candidacy for the third district of Camarines Sur, the favorite guessing game in Naga City was whether Robredo’s widow would succumb to the pressure for her to run and how long she could hold out.
Said Leni herself at the time: “I have seen so much of [politics] to know it is not for me. After all, I handled [Jesse’s] campaigns … , so it is very clear to me what I want to do. [And that is] to keep alive the legacy of my husband as a private citizen, to remain in the judiciary, and be a mother to my children and help them grieve for their father.”
Teoxon, a neighbor of the Robredos who worked closely with Leni in the past had said: “It is highly unlikely that she will run for public office. She has always been a private person who is more inclined to take care of her children.”
Of the local LP chairmanship, she explained: “I only agreed to take on the LP chairmanship because it seemed like the only option left for the LP Camarines Sur leaders to unite after Jesse’s death left them feeling orphaned … [But] I will only help manage the provincial LP in choosing its bets, in the filing of their candidacy, campaign and so on. In other words, everything short of running for a post myself, and only until after the election.”
Afraid of politics
She added: “There are many ways I can continue Jesse’s legacy. Politics is just one of them. I am sure I will be more effective outside of it.”
It was, in fact, because of her personal discomfort with electoral politics that Jesse had shielded her from it.
“I had always been afraid of politics and afraid of what it would do to my family,” Leni said. “Because of this, Jesse was very considerate of my feelings. The demarcation between his job as mayor and his family, his office and our home, was very clear and the lines never crossed. When he ran for mayor, I was a young wife and mother, and with too much on my hands, he made sure our home was a sanctuary. He never held political meetings at home. After he won, he never forced me to be active. He knew I was not comfortable with public attention. He knew it was not my cup of tea,” she recalled.
She said Jesse understood her because he himself realized that after six terms as Naga City mayor and during his stint as Cabinet secretary, he longed to be a private citizen again.
“At some point, he told me he did not really like electoral politics. After his stint at DILG, Jesse was talking about working for an NGO. He had an offer from the World Bank that involved local [government] projects and he was seriously considering accepting it,” Leni said.
Jesse, she said, was very introverted by nature, perhaps even unfit for the field he had chosen by his very nature. No matter how successful he had become, he would always be the fervent devotee to Ina, our Lady of Peñafrancia, and just one of the barefoot vayadores who bore the image of Ina on their shoulders during her feast day. Whatever he had accomplished, whenever he came home to Naga, he would always go straight to the Basilica to lay down his accomplishments as gifts at the feet of Ina.”
Jesse never consciously pursued things and glory, Leni said. He thought everything came to him by grace—his six terms as Naga mayor, his Harvard stint and the Ramon Magsaysay award. He never felt entitled to them, as he always thought they came not because of his talent or his hard work, but because of grace.
And though he had his frustrations and had been reduced to tears at some point as chief of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), chafing at the slow progress of the reforms he wanted immediately implemented, toward the end of his life, Jesse was a happy and grateful man, Leni said. And he told her, she said, that his blessings were overflowing and much more than he deserved.
In their last conversation in the car just before he boarded his plane, Jesse told her that all his dreams had come true.
Of the same cloth
That Jesse chose a wife cut from the same cloth is an ideal that many Robredo supporters are anxious to preserve.
Bemboi Badiola, one of the organizers of Jesse Robredo Lives, debunked speculations that the organization was going to be used as a platform to launch Leni’s candidacy.
“There is no pressure from the movement for her to run for public office. In fact, we prefer that she does not. If she decides to run, of course we will support her but we are not encouraging her,” Badiola said, not expecting that days later Leni would decide run for the seat of the third district of Camarines Sur in the House of Representatives.
Embert Rodriguez, a supporter of the movement overseas, said running for public office and keeping her Liberal Party affiliation would diminish Leni’s stature not only in Camarines Sur but also throughout Bicol region.
“Leni should give her blessing to candidates who will do a Robredo regardless of party (affiliation). Then she would have started a trend and would have made sure that Jesse’s legacy lived on,” he added.
Said Robles: “If she runs, it is a perpetuation of the Philippine culture of dynasty which is focused on personality that Jesse himself hated. We have seen too much of that … To elect (Leni) to public office just because she was his wife only reinforces the inordinate preoccupation with personalities and celebrities that has marred the democratic exercise of politics in this country.”
Agreed political strategist Reli German: “(Leni) running will leave a bad taste, perhaps even tarnish the memory of Jesse and will be seen as taking advantage of her husband’s death. Right now, she is perceived as being above the clamor and that is where she should stay.”
“If she runs for public office, she will cease to be legendary,” said artist-sculptor Jerry Araos, a former member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. “People kneel before icons; nobody kneels before politicians.”
A mother first
Such fears may be unfounded. The way she tells it, Leni Robredo does not want to be a legend or a politician, and she sees enough fulfillment in her work and in her home, raising her children well.
“I don’t need the validation of others or even public opinion to realize my worth,” she said.
While she recognizes the power of an elective position to effect change at the national level, she has also seen that change only trickles down to its intended beneficiaries.
Said Leni: “As a lawyer for an NGO, I can get things done and see it done fast. I do a lot of community work that satisfies a lot of my advocacies. I was once assigned in Masbate for two years and I would take the 5 a.m. ferry once a week to supervise capacity building of the community leaders there. There were very few lawyers in Masbate and a lot of legal problems, [so] my role was very clear and I saw where I fit in.”
Two women have influenced her, Leni said: her mother, a teacher who taught her “to be independent and not to depend on anyone,” and her mother-in-law who made her realize that her number one calling is taking care of her children.
“She was engaged in the business of trawl-fishing. She would wake up at 3 a.m. and make sure that everything was sold by 12 noon so the rest of the day could be devoted to her children. This was the kind of life and family that I was assimilated to,” Leni said.
She added: “I am very protective of the time I spend with my children. I am one of those parents who believe that quantity time is quality time. People know that after 5 p.m., I am no longer available. Even when I was teaching, I only taught half a day and the rest of it I devoted to my children. I can take time away from my work but not away from my children.”
Her children’s needs come first, she stressed. ”My children have just lost a father. They are not about to lose a mother,” Leni said. “I do not see how running for political office will benefit my children at all.”
In fact, she added, she was turning down a Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) nomination as regional trial court judge in Camarines Sur, and would be applying for a post in Quezon City instead to be with her daughters who still needed her guidance.
Because of her singular devotion to family over almost everything, it is easy to dismiss Leni as apolitical. Far from it; she cares about nation building as much as any well-meaning politician, except that she eschews grandstanding and motherhood statements, preferring to go by the smallest particulars instead. It was how she described Jesse in her eulogy—by the smallest particulars like how he loved to fix things around the house, how he would help Jillian with homework even during staff meetings, how he gave her flowers on their anniversary.
Mothers as nation builders
To hear Leni say it, people who are trying to do their best in their jobs and mothers trying to raise their children well, contribute as much to a nation’s progress as any well-spoken politician. Who’s to say that Jillian’s homework, Aika’s need for career guidance, Tricia’s need for comfort isn’t as importance as those issues being debated in Congress?
Her efforts have been worth it, she said proudly. “They are self-confident and sure of what they want. They have exceeded all my best expectations,” she said of her children.
To people who would tell Leni that they would finance a national election campaign for her, she would only smile and cut them short. Whatever the world can offer her is meaningless and small compared to what she has lost in that plane crash. And whatever is left, she will not lose and hold close to her heart.
Leni Gerona-Robredo, widow of Jesse Robredo had the best of everything and still has. It’s impossible to tell her she can have better.