Dealing with a pandemic was far from what the mayor wanted to do on his last term. Still, he's making his last years count. Photo from @valenzuelacity on Twitter
Culture Spotlight

How Valenzuela mayor Rex Gatchalian’s distaste for clutter puts his city in order

Or why the 41-year old has the highest approval rating among mayors in Metro Manila. By BAM ABELLON
ANCX | May 23 2020

“Is it okay if we don’t use Viber because the Internet sucks, and the call might be choppy,” Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon “Rex” Gatchalian tells me over the phone. His words spoken in a fast yet steady rhythm. He was coming clear on our end, and yet, ever the man who gives extra attention to detail, just the thought of having a glitch in this conversation makes him uneasy. Throughout our interview, we slowly understand where he is coming from. The 41-year-old public servant demands order in most things. He demands it from himself and from people around him.

“It makes me sleep more soundly knowing I’ve done the job,” he says, “rather than wait for tomorrow because tomorrow might have a different story.”

As much as possible, Mayor Gatchalian doesn't go home when there are still piles of papers on the table: "At the end of the day, the papers have to be in the shredder, meaning na-aksyunana na, or filed, or sent to the office concerned."

A little trivia might help paint a clearer picture: His penholders, notepads, and other such everyday objects are taped to his work desk so that whoever cleans it would not be able to easily move his things around. “Life is too stressful already at the City Hall,” he explains. “The last thing I need is not to be able to function just because certain things are not arranged the way I want.”

 

Becoming Mayor

Lucky for his constituents, Mayor Rex treats his city the way he treats most aspects of his life: with care and attention to detail.  

When the coronavirus forced many cities in the Philippine to go under an extended community quarantine (ECQ), the mayor already had policies penciled in. Immediately, he began to hold office at the disaster preparedness center, where he, his staff, and a handful of experts, would huddle day and night, discussing their strat plan against an unknown, unpredictable virus.

The Gatchalian family are close-knit. But when asked if there's competition among the siblings, the mayor replies, "I’d like to think I’m the best of them all." Then he laughs. "I'm kidding. It's a mental competition. If he did that, he raised the bar, then I have to somehow beat that standard."

In the weeks that followed, Valenzuela, which has a population of more than 620,000, became the first local government unit (LGU) to do localized COVID-19 testing, through their four partner laboratories. As of press time, a fifth lab is waiting for accreditation, which would increase their number of tests from 225 to 300 per day. On top of that, the city government has already distributed hundreds of thousands of food packs, and are already on their third round of distribution. No wonder that in an April survey conducted by lobbying and campaigns firm Publicus Asia on Metro Manila mayors, Mayor Rex got the second highest approval rating, next only to Vico Sotto of Pasig. By May, Mayor Rex took the top spot. The demands of a mayor’s every day can be grueling, and since the ECQ, Mayor Gatchalian says he hasn’t had a free day.

But the way he’s been working in this pandemic is not exactly something he just put on like a PPE. This work ethic is nothing new to the once cum laude graduate. Maybe because he comes from a family of achievers. His eldest brother, Sherwin, graduated from Boston University and is now a senator; Kenneth went to the University of Texas in San Antonio and is now an architect; and the youngest sibling Weslie finished his Master’s degree in Management at the London Metropolitan University and is now a congressman for the first district of Valenzuela.

Mayor Rex, the third child, graduated with a degree in political science with secondary fields in marketing and psychology from the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C.

“Growing up, there was not a shroud of thought—not even a mini-micron of feeling—that we would end up in politics,” he says about this peculiar path that he and his two siblings now walk on.  

Mayor Rex was born in Manila three weeks after New Year in 1979. He was raised in Valenzuela which was not yet a city then. He describes his hometown as “very rural.” His father owned a plastic factory, one of the biggest factories in Valenzuela at the time, with 5,000 employees. His mother was a Christian pastor. Both his parents are of Chinese descent. The Supreme Court granted his father William Gatchalian, a real estate and plastics tycoon, Filipino citizenship in 1991.

Gatchalian celebrated his birthday last January by attending the inauguration of one of the 3S (Sentro ng Sama-samang Serbisyo) centers, or "little city halls."

The 70-hectare compound where the plastic factory was located (it’s no longer there) now includes the community church, a health facility, and the Gatchalian home. During his free time, Rex would play with the children of the stay-in factory workers. His father, the more laidback parent, would make him and his siblings do median work at the factory, just so they could get a feel of the business. His mother, on the other hand, was uncompromising when it comes to their academics: the brothers had to consistently churn out good grades.  

Although his family did not have much involvement in politics—save for supporting family friends who were in the field—Gatchalian saw a glimpse of community work through his father, who was active in Rotary and Lions. “My father was very engaged with the community,” he recalls. “When we decided to go into public service, we tapped into that legacy.”

By fifth grade, the Gatchalians moved to Quezon City so Rex could be closer to his school: the Xavier School in San Juan (where he also went to high school). It was on weekends that they would visit their residence in Valenzuela.

Mayor Gatchalian says his mother, Dee Hua Ting Gatchalian, a devout Christian, made sure that he and his brothers churned out good grades in school.

His whole life, Rex was never part of a student council, nor was he placed in any leadership position. But he says the human interaction side of politics has always piqued his interest. When it was time to pick a university for college, he chose one that stood right at the center of the most observed politics in the world.  

“I remember one summer, in high school,” he says.  “My dad took us to D.C. I always found that place interesting because it’s the epitome of politics—from international relations, government finance, it oozes politics.”

He entered GWU as an economics major, then shifted to political science. The plan was to get his degree, go back home, and attend law school. After graduation, he spent a year and a half working as a paralegal for the prominent law firm Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.

But then Sherwin, who was at the forefront of the family business at the time, decided to run for congress. Suddenly there was a vacuum to fill, and Rex had to come home. In 2005, he became the president of the Waterfont Hotels and Casino, one of their family’s businesses.

Gatchalian didn’t pursue law school because he believes that if one wants to be good at something, he needs to focus on that one thing. “If I cannot be a full-time law student, I might as well not be a student at all.”

He believes that the only way to get honest feedback from his constituents is by talking to them while they're in their environment. "That's why I still do KBL," he says. "Minsan, pag naka-inom, they become too honest. But I'd rather have that than a screened comment."

When he had free time, he would accompany his congressman brother to some of his political engagements. And little by little, he saw a few cracks he wanted to fix.

“I would hear complaints: red tape, bad education system, inefficient delivery of services,” Gatchalian says. “I have the same sentiments. I would voice it out, but after that, what happens? I knew I can’t keep complaining. I thought to myself, ‘I can stop complaining and just be part of the solution.’”

In 2007, Sherwin decided to run for mayor. Gatchalian left his corporate job of five years, ran for congress, and won. He held the position for six years, until he took the mayoral seat in 2013.

 

The Last Term

Mayor Rex likes observing people. Like he said many times during our conversation, it fascinates him how humans react differently to certain stimulus.

But every day, before he joins his constituents on the ground, he makes it a habit to spend time alone with his thoughts. Pre-pandemic, he would wake up at seven o’clock in the morning and run for at least an hour. If work doesn’t allow for that, he would run in the evening.

“Running gives me time to think and digest everything that happened,” he says. “When I get off the cross trainer, I’ve already made a mental note of what I have to do.” His tasks are arranged in compartments: two days for constituents (anyone who wants to air out his/her grievances may do so at the city hall), two days for pure developmental work, and three days for going around barangays and for KBL (kasal, binyag, libing). The last one, he says, is the only time his constituents can be truly honest with him because they’re in their environment.

Sundays, from 5 p.m. onwards, are reserved for the family—no excuses, no exemptions. It has been the tradition since he was in high school.

Although this health crisis has changed all that. The mayor has lost weight, too. He says it’s probably because of stress and because he has not had a drop of alcohol since he imposed an alcohol ban in the city. “Kung hindi sila puwedeng uminom, hindi din ako iinom,” he says. He used to drink with his constituents during KBL activities, but those aren’t allowed anymore.

Mayor Gatchalian and Mayor Vico Sotto of Pasig City have collaborated in the past. During the pandemic, they have admitted to copying each other's strategies. "Wala na akong time mag-isip," Gatchalian says. "Nakita mo nang gumana sa iba, kopyahin mo na lang."

Now, he gets five to six hours of interrupted sleep every day. Someone’s always calling, and there’s always an issue that needs fixing. Food, for some reason, doesn’t taste the same.

Still, he tries to keep healthy by taking the bottles of vitamins his parents send. They haven’t had their traditional Sunday dinners in more than two months, he reckons, as if realizing it just now. Based on his stories, it’s clear he has a close bond with his folks. His obsession for perfection, for instance, stems from his father’s tales of determination—which comes in handy during crisis.

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Like many from the generation of Chinese men he belongs to, the Gatchalian patriarch did not have an easy life growing up. He had to earn his keep. “My father used to tell us that he wished he had an opportunity to go to a good school,” Rex recalls. “That haunts us. Kami, just name the school, get in, and he’ll take care of everything. Ma-guilty ka na if you don’t do well. Na-inculcate ’yong hiya. No’ng bata ako, I worked hard dahil sa takot sa nanay; ngayon, dahil sa hiya. He spent money to put us to good schools. Why would you squander that?

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Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

Mayor Rex Gatchalian shares with ANCX a few photos of his private life, which mostly revolves around his family and their travel adventures. 

At the time of our interview, the mayor and his team were already preparing for Valenzuela’s “new normal,” where social distancing remains a must and violators will be fined. Business owners will be accountable for their employees, and if caught disregarding the safety policies after a few warnings, community service will be the penalty. Mayor Rex says he doesn’t care much about slighting friends along the way. “Kung anong nakasulat sa batas, ’yon na,” he says. He’s not one for gray areas, either—he says they only lead to more gray areas, confusion and a lot of mess. And he hates mess.    

Mayor Rex is on his last term as city mayor, and the topic changes his mood a little. He still wants to address all the developmental work that he says Valenzuela deserves: more good schools, more public parks, more bike lanes. He wants to build projects that would outlast him. But those will have to take a back seat for now. “It’s going to be one hell of a last term,” he says, going from a hint of sadness to a slight laughter. He doesn’t even want to talk about his political plans right after. “Right now, I just want to get my city through this pandemic,” he says. A job which, based on the word on the street, he’s been performing with laudable effectiveness. The invisible enemy is tough, its demands gargantuan and unprecedented. No wonder Rex Gatchalian wants his penholders and notepads exactly where he left it.

 

Photographs from REX Gatchalian's Facebook account