'Kingmaker' wants own throne: Macalintal taps former clients for Senate bid

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 08 2019 03:00 PM

Batangas Rep. Vilma Santos raises the hand of her former election lawyer and Otso Diretso candidate Romulo Macalintal in a sortie in Batangas. Photo from Romulo Macalintal's official Instagram

MANILA - One president, two vice presidents, several senators, a superstar House member and nearly all governors in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

For decades, veteran election lawyer Romulo Macalintal has been handling legal concerns of the country's political royalty. But this time, he wants a throne of his own in the halls of the Senate.

"Halos lahat ng kliyente ko kinausap ko na na sana naman lahat nang nagawa ko dati para sa kanila masuklian nila ng corresponding support ngayong darating na eleksyon," Macalintal told reporters on the sidelines of a sortie in Cavite.

(Almost all of my clients, I talked to them and said I hope everything I did for them they could pay back with corresponding support this coming elections.)

Among his clients were former president and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, former Vice President Noli De Castro, incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, as well as senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Ralph Recto and Manny Pacquiao. 

"There are so many clients whose cases I was able to pursue successfully, perhaps I should also give it a try, not only to be kingmaker but perhaps one day I should be the king," he told ABS-CBN News in a separate interview.

The 71-year-old lawyer said he could have easily started his political career as an appointee in key government offices in the early 2000s, after helping Arroyo win a poll fraud case.

He was offered the position of justice secretary, solicitor general, Commission on Elections chair, and head of the Philippine National Oil Company.

"President Arroyo told me that I could be appointed even as justice of the Supreme Court," he said.

But Macalintal asserted that he had a different goal in mind: "I told President Arroyo, 'Ma'am, kahit chief justice of the Supreme Court, hindi ko po pinapangarap 'yan."

(Ma'am, even if you offer me the position of Supreme Court chief justice, that's not my dream.)

Macalintal said he has wanted to run for senator as early as 2016 but decided against it as then candidates Sotto, Pacquiao, and Zubiri were his clients.

"I have been submitting various proposals to the Senate and the Congress (House of Representatives) to at least amend certain provisions in laws concerning senior citizens and persons with disabilities, but until now I have not received any reply except that the suggestions were already referred to the appropriate committee," he said.

"I just want to try it dahil ayoko magkaroon ng unfinished business. Mahirap 'yung mayroon kang dinadala sa konsensiya na, 'Sayang, hindi ko nagawa 'yung gusto ko gawin,'" he said.

(I just want to try because I don't want to have unfinished business. It's hard to have regrets like, "Too bad, I was not able to do what I really wanted to do.")

HIGH-PROFILE INFLUENCE

Armed with an advocacy to champion senior citizens and persons with disabilities, Macalintal filed his certificate of candidacy to run for senator, with no less than his courtroom rivals -- Sixto Brillantes Jr. and George Garcia -- as his legal counsels and political advisers.

Macalintal and Garcia are pitted against each other in the ongoing electoral protest case between Vice President Leni Robredo and former Sen. Bongbong Marcos. 

Macalintal and Brillantes had a legal showdown in 2004 when they served as election lawyers of rival candidates Arroyo and the late action star Fernando Poe Jr., and Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda when they were vying for the vice presidency.

Aside from lending advice, Brillantes and Garcia have also been asking their politician-clients to campaign for Macalintal at the local level.

The veteran lawyer's track follows that of Leila de Lima, an election lawyer who entered politics and succeeded in a Senate bid. 

His attempt, though, may well be more intrepid: whereas De Lima first served in government in various capacities, first as human rights commissioner and then as justice secretary, Macalintal is gunning straight for one of 12 Senate seats up for grabs in a tight race.

And he is doing so under the opposition Otso Diretso slate, a roster battling candidates endorsed by well-oiled, administration-backed machineries that have been dominating pre-election surveys. 

"Our assessment originally is that Romy is already known [but] 'yung awareness namin (our awareness), among political circles lang (only). Down to the level of voters, hindi pa siya kilala kasi (he is not yet known because) we don't handle [election] cases sa (in the) barangay level," Brillantes said.

"Kaya nagtatawag talaga kami ng clients namin, nakikiusap na, 'Dose naman 'yan [pipiliin], meron naman siguro kayong bakanteng isa diyan, ipasok niyo na. Kung puwede isama sa sample ballot nila,'" he said.

(That's why we are really pleading to our clients to ask them, 'There are 12 seats, maybe you can spare one for him, include him in your roster. Maybe include him in your sample ballots.')

"Magkalaban 'yung mga kliyente namin ni George [Garcia] sa lokal so kung parehong kliyente namin, makukuha ka, parehong side mae-endorso ka," he said, laughing.

(My clients are running against George Garcia's clients at the local level, so if our clients would carry his name, then he would be endorsed by both sides.)

SENIOR CITIZEN SUPPORT

Support from two high-profile lawyers who have mastered the legal side of elections, however, has yet to translate into favorable survey numbers for Macalintal.

Macalintal, a University of the East law graduate, ranked between the 25 to 31 with only 5.2-percent voter support and 41-percent awareness in a Pulse Asia survey conducted from April 10 to 14 or about a month before election day.

"It's wrong to say that they did something wrong. In fact, their numbers have been improving, it's just that they are not popular, compelling candidates compared to the others on top," political analyst Ranjit Rye said.

"There are so many candidates who have a more compelling narrative, who are seasoned, who already have a strong voter constituency than they have," he said.

Macalintal -- who won a landmark case against a 5-star hotel that refused to honor his senior citizen discount -- has been promising voters that he would push for monetary benefits for the elderly if elected into office.

His platform has helped him establish a support base from voters aged 60 and above, but he still has to secure a foothold among 18 million young voters, Garcia said. 

Senior citizens account for only about 8 million votes, but this does not raise alarm bells for Macalintal's team.

"Traditionally mababa ang voter turnout kapag midterm elections. Around 60 to 63 percent of voters lang ang boboto," Garcia said.

(Traditionally, voter turnout during midterm elections is low. Only around 60 to 63 percent of voters go out and vote.)

"Mas matiyaga bumoto sa midterm elections ang mga matatanda. Sila 'yung maaga pa lang pumupunta na sa presinto, sila ang matitiyagang bumoto," he said.

(Senior citizens are more persistent when it comes to voting in midterm elections. They are the ones who come to voting precincts early in the morning and really persevere to cast votes.)

While having senior citizens as a constituency may work to win a party-list seat, it may not be enough for the Senate, even if all of the seniors vote for Macalintal. In the 2016 senatorial elections, De Lima needed 13.7 million to win the last seat in the upper house, and the threshold will be higher now with 61.8 million voters in this year's midterm polls. 

LAST-MINUTE PUSH

With about a week left before the May 13 polls, Macalintal is pressed for time to woo more voters.

"Last minute na. Two weeks is very close. We don't have the necessary funding... Ang advice namin is (Our advice is that the) concentration should be in Metro Manila na. Don't go too far na kasi sa (because in) Metro Manila kilala ka na dito (you're already known here), we just have to convert that into votes" Brillantes said.

"MacaRomy," Macalintal's tag that's a seeming play on "macaroni" but also means "for Romy" in Filipino, did not heed that advice and proceeded to campaign in Davao and Quezon province in the last few weeks of the campaign period.

After all, he is used to fighting--and winning--uphill battles, said his wife Milagros, who used to be his co-teacher at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, where he finished his undergraduate degree in commerce. 

"Sometime between the '70s and '80s, nakilala niya ako sa campus. Medyo kuwan 'yan e, presko kasi first meeting nung nagpaalam na ako, sabi niya, 'How would you like to be Mrs. Macalintal?'" she said laughing.

(I met him on campus sometime between the '70s and '80s. He was quite arrogant because after our first meeting, when I said I'd go ahead, he asked, "How would you like to be Mrs. Macalintal?")

Mila said she was turned off by the "very straightforward" question and rejected the lawyer.

Macalintal was not discouraged and pursued Mila for 6 long years until she finally agreed to become his better half. 

"When he perseveres on something he wants to do, he will do it, and he will do anything, and hindi niya isa-sacrifice 'yang desire na 'yan (he would not sacrifice that desire)," said Mila, who for nearly 4 decades now has been carrying the last name she once shunned.

The ever unfazed Macalintal now wears his wife's initial rejection as a badge of honor as he pursues a different kind of courtship: wooing the Philippine electorate. 

"Kahit mabasted, laban lang! Tuloy ang ligaw!"

(Even if I get rejected, just fight! The courtship continues!)

It should not come as a surprise if Macalintal would pull a come from behind victory, Garcia said.

"We lawyers still believe na kahit losing 'yung case, it could still be won depending on the soundness of your argument. Ganun din sa eleksyon. Akala mo patalo na pero mananalo pa," he said.

(We lawyers still believe that even if it's a losing case, it could still be won depending on the soundness of your argument. It's the same thing with elections. You think a candidate would lose, but he would suddenly win.)

VETERAN LAWYER, POLITICAL NEOPHYTE

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Romulo Macalintal (@attyromymac) on

Brillantes said political neophyte Macalintal should either continue pursuing his political dream or just retire.

"Sabi ko sa kaniya, 'Mahihirapan ka na kasi lahat 'yung mga kliyente mo lumipat na sa'min ni George [Garcia],'" he said in jest.

(I told him, "You'd have a hard time returning to practice because your clients have already transferred to me and George.")

"Sabi ko, 'Matanda na tayo kaya retire na tayo o kaya gumawa na lang kami ng party-list na sigurado kami mananalo,'" he said laughing.

(I told him, "We're already old so we should retire or we could just create a party-list group where we would surely win.)

Garcia, who is about a decade younger than the 2 senior election lawyers, said the 2019 polls is only the start of Macalintal's political career.

"Si JPE (Juan Ponce Enrile) nga 90 plus na tumatakbo pa, what more si Macalintal na 71 lang?" Garcia said of the 95-year-old former Senate president who is running a Senate comeback. 

(Juan Ponce Enrile is already 90 years old but he's still running for public office, what more Atty. Macalintal who is just 71?)

"Mga iilang taon pa, puwede pa," he said.

(He could still run for a few more years.)

Should Macalintal decide to return to courtrooms, "there would always be room for an Attorney Macalintal," he said.