NAGA CITY - On the last day of the filing of certificates of candidacy for the 2013 elections, Ma. Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo did what she had always thought was unthinkable. It was a path she had repeatedly said she would never take, despite the outpouring of love and support for her family when her husband, Jesse Robredo, died two months before.
On October 5, 2012, the widow formalized her bid to represent Camarines Sur’s 3rd district in Congress, and her entry into politics.
Robredo says it was never part of her plans—-she applied to be a trial court judge and was shortlisted—-but the situation within the Liberal Party (LP) changed everything. Two of its members both wanted to run for congressman, and would only give way if she ran.
The thought of a disunited party made Robredo rethink her plans.
“Then our supporters pushed me to run,” she says. “But more than that, I realized that if I allowed our group to disintegrate, I would also allow the political dynasty here to flourish even more.”
The “dynasty” she’s talking about is the family where her opponent for the position comes from: the Villafuertes. Nelly Favis Villafuerte is running to replace her husband, Rep. Luis Sr., as 3rd district representative.
Both Villafuerte and Robredo are lawyers, mothers, and wives of two prominent names in Camarines Sur politics. Luis Villafuerte Sr. was Camarines Sur’s longest-serving governor before he became a congressman, while his nephew and protégé, Jesse Robredo, was a multi-awarded former mayor of Naga who is known to have propelled the city to progress.
Despite being exposed to it by their husbands, both Nelly and Leni are also neophytes in politics.
“Hi! I’m Mrs. Nelly Villafuerte,” she told a market vendor in Naga City during a tour with some supporters. The man stared at her blankly, but smiled a bit when she shook his hand.
“First time you see me?” Villafuerte asked.
“We’ve seen you in the papers,” the vendor answered.
“Can I run for congresswoman?”
“Everybody is welcome!”
Later, during her tour at the public market, a man with a megaphone began speaking as she went stall to stall to shake people’s hands.
“Introducing Nelly Villafuerte! Don’t forget her in the elections. She will be a kind and hardworking congresswoman for our district,” the man said repeatedly, almost as if his spiel was recorded.
Villafuerte says she has been going around different barangays in Camarines Sur every day with her husband, Luis, who’s running for governor against one of their grandchildren.
She’s eager to introduce herself to the people and tell them about her achievements: aside from her pictures, her camp distributes her curriculum vitae printed on glossy leaflets.
“I’ve been holding appointive government positions,” she told ABS-CBN News. “I’ve been the undersecretary of the Department of Trade. I’ve been a governor of the Board of Investments. I’ve been a member of the monetary board.”
Asked how she handles the pressure and physical demands of going around different towns, especially at 75, she replied, “I’m used to it.”
Villafuerte placed 7th during the 1959 bar exams. A columnist and former TV producer, she has written several books on business and economics.
She and her husband believe her credentials alone would make her a good lawmaker.
“If you read the proceedings of the Monetary Board, you will be surprised at how deep-seated her insights are about social and economic problems of the country,” Luis says. “Actually, she doesn’t have to be prepared.”
To ensure her victory, Villafuerte is counting on her husband’s loyal supporters all over the district, something her opponent doesn’t have.
“They are going to have difficulties organizing outside (Naga) city,” Luis says of Leni Robredo and LP.
It’s a problem Robredo herself admits. Although she’s confident about her chances of winning in Naga City, where candidates endorsed by her husband won in past elections, she says she is weak in other towns and does not have the support of local officials.
This is why she has been spending most of her time these days going around various barangays in the 3rd district to personally introduce herself to the people, and talk to them about their needs.
Visiting some of Camarines Sur’s poorest towns was an eye-opener for her. She says Naga, a first-class city, is very different—-an anomaly.
“I’ve always had an idea that life outside Naga is poor,” Robredo says, “but not that poor.”
“The government has many shortcomings. There are still many places where children have to walk far distances to go to school, and in these schools, many grade levels share one classroom,” she adds.
Robredo says that aside from crafting anti-poverty measures, she wants to introduce a new brand of governance in Camarines Sur and veer away from “patronage politics,” which she says has been an accepted reality in the province. She wants to make places outside Naga experience what it has achieved in terms of the economy and governance.
For instance, she says she will do away with many politicians’ practice of placing their names on public projects as if they funded them with their own money, something her late husband never did when he was alive, she says.
Ultimately, she aims to make other places in the 3rd district like Naga.
For Robredo, the first thing to do is change is the way many people think.
“They tend to accept what’s there. I don’t think that’s good,” Robredo says. “I think people should be taught not only to be progressive in their thinking but also vigilant enough not to let their officials get away with wrongdoing.”
Her decision to run comes with sacrifices, like having to rely on scant resources, and even more painful for a mother, having less time for her family.
But as Jesse did when he was alive, she always finds time for her daughters. After a day of visiting different places, she has to be back in Naga at 5 pm to fetch her youngest child, Jillian, from school and take her to swimming class.
“It’s very important to maintain that balance. I think my husband was effective in that. He remained grounded. No matter how busy he was, family time is family time,” Leni says.
For the Villafuertes, Leni Robredo’s candidacy is all hype.
“It’s a complete political hype,” says Luis. “She wants to run on the basis of the death of her husband, whom some people in the media are promoting as if he is sinless and about to be anointed as some kind of saint.”
The Villafuerte patriarch and the late Jesse Robredo were at odds with each other. Villafuerte even denies that Robredo is his nephew, saying he has documents to prove it.
Villafuerte says it was he who pushed Robredo to run for mayor in 1988. In 1992, he and Robredo parted ways when the latter supported Fidel V. Ramos’ candidacy for president.
A member of the Commision on Appointments, Villafuerte was also accused of blocking Robredo’s confirmation as secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
Robredo had said in past interviews that he discovered during his term that Villafuerte was involved in illegal activities like jueteng.
He also accused his uncle of treating him like a rubberstamp, often sending him documents to sign.
Villafuerte vehemently denies all the accusations. “That’s a lie, Jesse! In your grave! You will be punished for that lie!”
Formerly just behind their husbands, their wives are now waging their own political battle against each other, each hoping to be chosen by a people mired in poverty.
(To be continued)