Reaching out. Sotto during a Sunday sortie in Barangay Pinagbuhatan, Pasig. Photograph by Geric Cruz
Culture Spotlight

Will Vico Sotto be Pasig's final answer?

The single-term councilor wants to take Pasig from the hands of the Eusebios on his own terms: with only the faintest help from his famous folks and their dabarkads. Audrey Carpio joins the 29-year old on the campaign trail and meets a kind of Sotto we never knew existed. 
Audrey Carpio | Apr 22 2019

Vico Sotto is making his way through the narrow winding alleyways of a small community in Bgy. Santo Tomas in Pasig, the city where he is running for mayor. Young kids shriek as he approaches, older women coyly take video selfies. A group of men holler, “Enteng Kabisote!” and laugh—I would later find out this alluded to more than just Vico being the son, as well as spitting image, of Vic Sotto. It is sweltering, the 15th day out on his campaign trail. Vico is unfazed by the heat, the clamoring; he shakes hands, autographs photos, and holds babies thrust at him. He will do this all again over the next few weeks until he gets to meet as many of the 800,000 people living in Pasig, half of whom are registered voters, all of who have been living under the rule of the Eusebio clan for 27 years.

Inside his campaign van. 
 

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The 29-year-old upstart, a one-term city councilor, does not have the machinery to match that of the incumbent mayor Bobby Eusebio, but he’s banking on the people’s desire for change. #IbaNaman, Vico’s hashtag, sums up the frustrations and failures of Pasig City attributed to the political dynasty, whom he believes has governed ineffectively at best. The Eusebios, on the other hand, are straight up pushing for continuity with “May Forever sa #TeamBobby,” a slate that also fields Bobby’s brother Ricky for reelection to Congress. Vico Sotto T-shirts reply: #WalangForever.

“I could easily set up a concert and invite 10 famous artists. I choose not to do that because I want to treat the voters intelligently,” says Vico.

If he wanted to, Vico could harness the entire power and influence of Eat Bulaga!, and his close supporters have been trying to convince him to stage nightly full-on rallies. But the showbiz-averse Vico—who as a kid refused to appear on the noontime show—is adamant about winning on his own merit.  “I could easily set up a concert and invite 10 famous artists,” he says. “I choose not to do that because I want to treat the voters intelligently.” He’s not disavowing his celebrity heritage, however. His mother, the actress Coney Reyes, campaigns with him, while the elder Sotto—one of the most famous, not to mention wealthiest, names in Philippine entertainment—is known to make terrible dad jokes on his behalf. Bossing has also deployed his production company MZET to help his son with his sorties.

“I want to go down and deliver my message, and if they like my message, then they’ll vote for me. If they don’t believe in my message then they won’t. For me, it’s that simple.”

Still, Vico has shown he is an independent thinker when he expressed differing opinions from his other, more polarizing relation, the Senate President Tito Sotto, over the CHR budget controversy in 2017. “I’ve always been issue based, no matter if it’s my friend, family member, or my enemy,” he explains. “Some things I agree with, some I don’t.” When it comes to supporting the administration’s drug war, for instance, Vico believes that the most important thing the local government can do is to treat it as a healthcare issue. “As mayor, I would focus on the demand side, create rehab centers and drug testing facilities, which are all part of the Universal Health Care program that I’m forwarding.”

“I’ve always been issue based, no matter if it’s my friend, family member, or my enemy,” he explains.

With no dog and pony show, Vico’s campaign strategy is pretty straightforward, his caucuses are low-tech affairs, and the messaging is purely his own. “I want to go down and deliver my message, and if they like my message, then they’ll vote for me,” says Vico. “If they don’t believe in my message then they won’t. For me, it’s that simple.”

Of course, it’s not actually that simple—rarely anything in politics is, and Vico learned this during his first few months in office as an independent councilor, where he experienced the kind of behavior that belonged more in a high school canteen than the City Hall. “I would enter a room, and people would leave. I wondered if it was something I did. But eventually those same people would find a way to talk to me. Pasensya na lang, takot lang ako, they said. I was shocked, I thought these things only occurred in areas run by warlords.”

A fan holds up his message of support.
 

Given this atmosphere of fear, Vico’s tenure as councilor was a difficult one, but he managed to pass the localized version of the Freedom of Information bill, after a lot of strategizing and sacrificing of other measures he wanted to pass. “People think, ‘We don’t need that ordinance. Pasig is transparent!’ People say, 'Walang nagawa.' But that FOI ordinance will benefit a lot of Pasigueños.” Given that Pasig has a hefty budget of P10.7 billion, holding the local government accountable for every peso it spends is a matter that Vico greatly prioritizes.

Pasig is a huge city that sprawls beyond the prosperous confines of the west side’s Ortigas Center and the posh Valle Verde villages, where Vico himself lives. “The east side of Pasig is a whole different city. There’s really a disparity of wealth,” he says. He has lived in Pasig his whole life, and spent the last several years really digging into its concerns. “The usage of resources is questionable. Most of the programs are geared toward short term dole outs, there are no long-term anti-poverty plans.”

Getting to know Pasig one household at a time. Sotto in Bgy. Santo Tomas.

 This is where the development geek/government nerd side of Vico shines. He has come up with a pretty serious and comprehensive Big 5 Agenda, none of which scream any sexy words like “BIRTHDAY CAKE” or “FREE SNEAKERS,” instead expounding on complex issues like universal healthcare, housing programs, education, public consultation, and transparency. At the top of his list is health care, because after numerous dialogues with residents and stakeholders, he has found that despite the abundance of infrastructure—there are two city hospitals and several health centers—there remains a noticeable lack of medicines, and those that are available are often near expired.

Shrieks and selfie requests greet Sotto wherever he goes.

“I’ve wanted to work in government since I was 10,” Vico says. He recounts how his brother L.A. Mumar, then a development studies student at Ateneo, would make him read his college textbooks on governance and politics. They would play analog Sim City-type games on illustration board. “After school, he would quiz me. He made me read the Constitution when I was around 12. He was 11 years older, so I didn’t really have a choice.”

"If his desire was to be rich and famous," says his brother L.A. Mumar, "artista could have been the easier path."

L.A., being the responsible kuya and perhaps closest male role model in Vico’s life (their mother Coney was a single parent), wanted the young boy to learn how to analyze and articulate his ideas. “It was my way of training him in critical thinking which I knew he would need in any future job. Also, it was a fun way of reviewing my lessons while playing with my baby brother,” L.A. says in an email. “He is NOT AMBITIOUS. If his desire was to be rich and famous, artista could have been the easier path. Gwapo pa naman yang kapatid ko! He chose to run because he wants to serve the people of Pasig.” L.A. is now a motivational speaker and personal coach, while Vico ended up taking political science and getting a master’s degree in public management in Ateneo, all after being “brainwashed” by his brother.

“I’ve wanted to work in government since I was 10,” Vico says, recounting how his brother would make him read his college textbooks on governance and politics.

The decision to run for mayor was not a given. Vico had gotten close to former congressman Roman Romulo, who expressed his desire to return to the House as a representative of Pasig City’s lone district, currently being held by Ricky Eusebio. The two men agreed on a lot of issues, but most importantly to Vico, Roman was known to be an honest man. “At some point we started meeting every night, and it became apparent: if I wasn’t going to run for mayor, no one else will,” Vico says. “To me, that was unacceptable. I felt the responsibility.” The last time a credible opponent challenged a Eusebio was during the 2007 midterm elections. Robert Jaworski Jr. lost to Bobby but filed for a recount, claiming the ballot boxes were tampered with. Jaworski had also earlier called an investigation into the mayor after the discovery of a shabu tiangge behind the city hall.

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Just two days before the deadline of filing COCs, Vico decided to step up. Which brings us to this day under the intense Manila sun, where Vico and his team are handing out flyers that double as fans. Every day, they put back the posters that had been torn down the night before. Every day, his constituents grow bolder in their support. Vico wants to end the culture of fear, the culture of vengeance where a city employee loses his job for helping an opponent with the sound system, or where somebody’s mom’s business permit gets revoked after being seen commenting on a rival’s Facebook post.

In a city where forever is in a family name, perhaps it is telling of the shift in the wind when a group of residents yell “Enteng Kabisote.” Enteng is also Bobby’s father, the first Eusebio mayor. In the battle for Pasig, the sons of Enteng are fighting for different things: change vs continuity, a new style of governance vs more of the same. And if the Pasigueños do choose to give the newcomer a chance, the question is will he live up to the expectations of being more than just his name?

 

Photographs by Geric Cruz