Art by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

The Last Good Senator: Franklin Drilon

“Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a saint,” writes the journalist and former Secretary under the Presidential Communications Group. But, what sets the former Senate President apart from other lawmakers is that he “struggles” with his decisions—and it’s a difference that matters.
Ricky Carandang | Mar 31 2019

Seven weeks before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished journalists and opinion makers reflect on the careers of past and present senators whose careers have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

I had no government experience when president-elect Benigno Aquino III asked me to join his cabinet in June 2010. Until then I was on the other side of the fence as  a journalist, working for ABS-CBN, where my most impactful stories were when I was exposing government wrongdoing, questioning policy, and (as I conceitedly thought at the time) “speaking truth to power.”

After a decade of “holding the powerful accountable,” here I was being asked to help take the reins and make myself accountable; to try to make a positive impact form inside the halls of power rather than outside. It was a decision that would forever change the way I saw government service, the media, and the country. And I didn’t make it alone.

One of the first people I called to ask for their advice was Franklin M. Drilon. Drilon, at the time was holding office at his old law firm. There, he was sitting out the 2007-2013 term, having been barred from seeking a third consecutive term by the 1987 constitution.  

 

More about lawmakers and the law:

 

Drilon was no stranger to government, having served in the cabinets of two tumultuous presidencies—those of Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. As part of those two administrations, Drilon was part of the teams that faced down coup attempts, transitioned the country from dictatorship to a (sort of ) democracy; drafted a new constitution; tamed hyperinflation; opened up the economy to more competition; managed the withdrawal of the US bases; forged peace (sort of) with a Muslim separatist movement; and ushered in a brief period of relative political stability.  

Then he became a senator.

In the senate he has headed the most important and powerful committees, served as majority leader, minority leader, and, of course, senate president. He has helped write and pass legislation that has kept the country in the good graces of the international financial community by restricting money laundering; kept the government debt at manageable levels; closed off opportunities for government corruption; improved access to reproductive health; increased taxes on tobacco and alcohol; strengthened our national defense, etc, etc. And the list goes on.

Drilon is uniquely skilled in the underappreciated art of forging consensus among some of the country’s most self-important, scheming, egotistical, and petty individuals in both chambers. His skills have earned him enough respect that he remains an influential lawmaker, even when he finds himself in the minority, as he does today under the Duterte administration.

Of course, Drilon isn’t the only politician with the particular political skills necessary to lead congress. There are many skilled politicians in both chambers that have successfully passed important laws. 

But here’s what I see in Drilon that I don’t often see in people in his position. He struggles. When he’s called upon to do something that he knows will cost him politically, he makes the same calculations that any smart politician would. And then he checks his conscience. When all sides of a debate are pressuring him into a decision where someone will end up unhappy with any choice he could make, he checks his conscience.

When President Aquino tried to pass the reproductive health bill in 2012, he, the cabinet, and his allies in Congress faced the unrestrained wrath of the Catholic Church. The personal attacks on RH advocates were harsh and unrelenting. Opposition to the bill was strong and support for it was floundering. The prudent political calculations did not favor passage of the bill. And I know that Frank had calculated the pros and cons in his head. Then he checked his conscience. The bill passed.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a saint. And I haven't agreed with every political calculation and conscience call that he has made. But the fact that he struggles; the fact that he checks his conscience; the fact that it’s not all politics to him tells me that he’s human. That at he’s core, he’s a good senator.

On the day in 2010 when I called him for advice, I visited  him in his office and we chatted for a while. We weighed the pros and cons. We weighed the implications. Then he said, in his matter-of-fact way, “ I’ve worked in the cabinet and I’ve worked in the senate. In the cabinet, no matter what portfolio you have, your mandate will always come from the president. When you are a senator, you have a mandate from the people.” 

“Take the job. And if you think it’s something you want to dedicate your life to, run for office someday.”

I took the job.