DINALUPIHAN, Bataan--Perched atop the flatbed of a pick-up truck, Lito Lapid gripped a handrail with one hand as he extended the other to brush shoppers and vendors shrieking “Pinuno”, the moniker of a rebel leader he portrayed in primetime television series “Ang Probinsyano.”
The grinning 64-year-old action star, who is seeking a return to the Senate, waved and saluted to the crowd here, every few meters throwing a confetti of candies with posters and white shirts emblazoned with his face and the phrase “Pinuno ng Probinsyano” or “leader of the province dweller.”
Lapid’s arrival at the agricultural town last Feb. 27 was unannounced, save by a blaring campaign jingle -- a rap piece with the same melody as the theme song in Probinsyano’s fight scenes, mashed with “Leon Guerrero”, a folk song named after the film character that cemented his fame in the '80s.
“Sorpresa lang, wala kaming pasabi. Lumalabas naman sila kahit mainit,” Lapid said of the droves that welcomed him, including 2 policewomen who sprinted for a selfie, screeching mothers who rushed out of a school, and residents who shouted to neighbors about his arrival.
(It was just a surprise, we had no announcement. They come out anyway even if it’s hot.)
Motorcycles tailed Lapid’s float across Bataan, their riders driving one-handed to touch him, as passengers in the opposite lane craned their necks out for a better look, while farmers paused from drying their palay on sidewalks.
A chorus of “Pinuno” pierced a second wet market in neighboring Balanga town, where Lapid helped several admirers clamber up his sky blue float for a selfie. In her hurry, a female fan forgot to take her phone, shouting instead at onlookers to take a photo as he stroked Lapid’s cheek.
“Salamat po!” Lapid would shout to supporters whom he called “boss” and “idol”, often flashing a thumbs-up or pointed finger at their direction.
A policewoman takes a photo as she holds Lapid’s hand. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
Residents line a roadside as Lapid’s motorcade passes. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
Government employees crowd Lapid for a photo during a campaign stopover at the Bataan Capitol. Bataan Gov. Albert Garcia’s father is a family friend of the Lapid’s family, said the senatorial candidate. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
An elderly fan strokes Lapid’s cheek as she asks onlookers to take a photo. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
Lapid shakes the hand of a resident who chased after his float. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
A senator for 2 consecutive terms from 2004 to 2016, Lapid placed 3rd to 6th among likely winners in the May 13 midterm elections in an opinion poll released February.
The action star attributed his survey performance to a 2-year stint in “Ang Probinsyano,” where his gun-toting character Romulo “Pinuno” Dumaguit led vigilantes battling a corrupt government.
“Ang laking bagay ng Probinsyano. Parang napapalitan na nga iyung pangalan ko. Ang tawag sa akin 'Pinuno',” he said in a Feb. 20 press conference.
(Probinsyano was a big thing. It’s as if my name has been changed. I’m now called Pinuno.)
'I'M STILL HERE'
Lapid's "Pinuno" generates appeal because he is a "champion of the masses" who fights for causes that the public can identify with, said University of the Philippines (UP) political science professor Dr. Perlita Frago-Marasigan.
His character highlights traits like bravery and righteousness, which"cut across ideological positions," she said.
Lapid's teleserye stint also gave him sustained media exposure, said the professor.
"He was able to capture the public's attention and he was able to say, 'I'm still here'," she said.
Probinsyano was the most watched show in February with an average television rating of 42.3 percent, said ABS-CBN. When Pinuno died in the arms of his wife played by Angel Aquino, the police drama netted a 44.4 percent rating on Feb. 11, the eve of the campaign period for national candidates, according to research firm Kantar Media.
Despite Probinsyano's TV dominance, Frago-Marasigan noted that "when you talk about Lito Lapid, he's already an established name."
"Everyone knows Lito Lapid. Prior to Ang Probinsyano, he already made a name for himself," she said.
LAPID: VENDOR, DATU, CROWD MULTIPLIER
Lapid, born in Porac, Pampanga, was the youngest in a brood of 5. At 2 years old, he lost his father Jose Lapid, a stuntman good with horses. To help with the expenses at home, the 12-year-old Lapid took odd jobs at a small store owned by the employer of his mother, a laundrywoman.
Of his 45-centavo monthly wage, Lapid saved 6 centavos while the rest went to his older brother's education. His entire savings later went to this sibling's graduation expenses, he said.
Lapid's mother eventually remarried a balut vendor, with whom she had 4 more children. Lapid said he helped his stepfather sell the native delicacy and later got his own gig of peddling bread before school.
He finished high school, but never went to college and instead became a stuntman. His uncle Jess Lapid, a movie star, had already passed away when he entered the film industry, where he earned his keep by jumping from planes, crashing through windows, hurling himself at tables, and being slammed by cars and dragged by horses.
"Wala akong katulong kundi sarili ko. Kung 'di ako magpapakita ng galing, itataya ko ang buhay ko sa pelikula, mga stunt, 'di ako mapapansin," Lapid told ABS-CBN News.
(I had no one to help me but by myself. If I didn't do well or gambled with my life in movies, stunts, I would not have gotten attention.)
He got his big break portraying his late uncle in the biopic, "The Jess Lapid Story."
A barrage of projects followed with Lapid starring as the lone ranger Leon Guerrero, Filipino hero Lapu-Lapu, and a real-life policeman who captured communist leader Joma Sison, among others.
Asked how he picked these characters, Lapid said he emulated movie icon Fernando Poe Jr., dubbed “Da King” for his portrayal of rugged underdog heroes, including Ricardo Dalisay in a movie from where Probinsyano drew inspiration.
Lapid said his first brush with politics was as a "pangparami," a celebrity that draws crowds to campaign sorties. He and his fellow actors also raised funds for the victims of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in neighboring Zambales province, which killed thousands.
Incumbent officials, he said, convinced him to enter politics the next year, leading to his election as vice governor. He later served as governor for 2 terms from 1995 to 2004, during which he said his biggest achievement was revitalizing his province’s economy with lahar quarrying and a “balik-probinsya” program that lured residents into returning to Pampanga with the promise of jobs.
The then Pampanga Vice Governor Joseller Guiao, however, accused Lapid of committing graft over the collection of lahar taxes. Lapid was suspended twice for 18 months but the Office of the Ombudsman withdrew the charge, allowing him to run for senator in 2004.
His Senate bid was backed by fellow Kapampangan, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who ran and won against Poe, her narrow victory marred with accusations of poll fraud that she denied.
As a lawmaker, Lapid said he filed some 500 bills, including the Free Legal Assistance Act, making him the sixth most prodigious in a chamber where he was colleagues with policy veterans Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Juan Ponce Enrile.
Lapid also participated in the historic 2012 impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona, refusing to read a statement prepared by his lawyers when he voted guilty against the top judge accused of failing to declare his wealth.
Lapid said he went into retirement from both politics and show business when his second Senate term ended in 2016. But sometime the next year, Probinsyano lead Coco Martin visited him in Pampanga and convinced him to appear in what should have been the drama’s last 2 weeks.
“Siguro medyo nagustuhan ang team namin ni Coco, kaya na-extend. Almost 2 years ako dito. Siguro kung hindi pumasok ang elections, naandyan pa rin ako sa Ang Probinsyano,” he said.
(The viewers may have liked our team so it was extended. I was there for almost 2 years. Perhaps, if not for the elections, I would still be in Ang Probinsyano.)
A CALL FROM TITO
Lapid said he sought a return to the Senate at the urging of Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto, who phoned him some “6 months ago.” This would have been around September last year, a month before the filing of candidacies.
Sotto is the senior council leader of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), which endorsed in October 2018 the senatorial bids of Lapid, and reelectionist Senators Grace Poe and JV Ejercito.
The Senate president also backs reelectionist Senators Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, Cynthia Villar, and Bam Aquino.
Sotto, who was elected as leader of the upper chamber in May last year, needs the vote of at least 13 colleagues to retain his post as Senate president after the May elections.
NO ADS YET
Lapid’s team wants to release television ads for his campaign but has yet to secure the necessary funds, said his lawyer, Jericho Acedera.
"Instead of him advertising sa TV -- it will cost us P1.2 million per 30 seconds -- ganito na lang, at least he knows that he was seen at saka nahahawakan, nakakamayan siya ng mga tao," he told ABS-CBN News.
(We just do this, at least he knows that he was seen and touched, shook hands with the people.)
In terms of reach, television remains the top medium in educating voters, said UP’s Dr. Frago-Marasigan.
“It can really speak more to people, the public, especially the larger society, not just the reading public,” she said.
The need to produce ads is “more characteristic of traditional politicians,” she said.
Lapid should not spend too much on ads “if part of his strategy is to maintain the image of being of the masses,” said Frago-Marasigan, adding that he could instead resort to the “time-tested” way of wooing voters in person.
Lapid missed the first few days of the campaign period because he opted to pray at the capital’s Baclaran Church and the Manaoag Church in Pangasinan province, he said.
The senatorial candidate visited Bataan clad in an emerald green sweater emblazoned with the face of Christ, doing the sign of the cross every time his float passed by a church.
With just 2 months left to campaign, Lapid’s motorcade hits the road “until dark.”
“Kaya may ilaw ‘yan,” pointing to the concealed pin lights of his float.
The movie icon said he has not asked Coco Martin about joining him in the campaign trail.
Martin has the highest endorsement value among Metro Manila voters, according to a 2018 poll by political strategy firm PUBLiCUS Asia.
"Laging may shooting pa (si Coco). Hindi ako nagsabi. May kusa naman iyun," Lapid said of his former co-star.
(He always has a TV shooting. I didn’t ask him anything. He has initiative anyway.)
Lapid also said he will not join debates with other candidates.
“May kasabihan nga ‘no talk, less mistake’, e di doon ka na lang. Wala naman akong inaaping tao, wala naman akong kinakalaban. Hindi naman ako nangangarap maging Presidente,” he said.
(There’s a saying, ‘Less talk, less mistake,’ just go with that. I’m not oppressing anyone, I’m not challenging anyone. I’m not even dreaming of becoming President anyway.)