MANILA—Young, charismatic and with a surname made popular by celebrity and politician relatives, it seems like Vico Sotto possessed the necessary ingredients to win in the political arena.
But it was not easy going up against the Eusebio family, which has held the Pasig mayoralty for the past 27 years.
One resident who voted for Sotto, 29, said she didn’t expect him to win since the Eusebios have never been beaten.
But unlike previous challengers, Sotto succeeded by finding a formula that allowed him to launch an alternative campaign while utilizing advantages he acquired by birth and circumstance.
GOING AGAINST GOLIATH
Sotto’s win has been likened to the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. As a one-term councilor, Sotto, in spite of his family background, is indeed considered a dwarf compared to the political giant that are the Eusebios.
That family’s reign in Pasig started in 1992 when the family patriarch Vicente Eusebio won as mayor. Since then, Eusebio family members have been taking turns holding the office.
In 2004, Vicente Eusebio won only by a slim margin against former congressman Henry Padua Lanot. In 2007, his son, Robert "Bobby" Eusebio almost lost the position to former basketball star and lawmaker Robert “Dodot” Jaworski Jr.
For the next 3 election cycles, however, the Eusebios continued to crush their opponents.
And for most of Sotto’s life, the Eusebios were in power.
Asked what the Eusebios did wrong to make him run against them, Sotto said: “Because we no longer want a culture of fear. We want to be inclusive, regardless if you are an ally or an enemy. You should be treated fairly. We want to fight corruption and for the city’s income to be used fully for the people.”
SLINGING LIKE DAVID
Sotto has several strengths, which he used to his advantage.
First is his preparation for public office.
In an ANCX interview, Sotto said he has wanted to work in government since he was 10, partly influenced by his older half-brother, LA Mumar, who was a development studies student at Ateneo de Manila University.
Eventually, Sotto entered Ateneo as a political science student. He took a master’s degree in public management in the same university, which he said was his way of preparing for public office.
“It’s not right to run for office without preparing for it. You need to be ready,” he said in an interview over DZMM radio.
In his latest ANC “Headstart” interview, Sotto revealed that he deliberately sought out public servants who could mentor him.
“That was the time I was thinking if I would run in 2016. I wasn’t sure yet,” Sotto said, referring to his plan to run as councilor. His father Vic, a veteran actor, wanted to introduce him to a politician but Vico asked if the official had a good track record.
“So I looked for someone who had principles and had a clean track record.”
He ended up teaming up with now Congressman-elect Roman Romulo, who was introduced to him by Sotto’s uncle, Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
He also used his youthful idealism and the brand of politics he learned from Ateneo to capture the hearts of voters from all social classes and sectors.
At the onset of the campaign season, people thought Sotto did not have a good chance of winning.
A survey by lobbying and campaigns firm Publicus in November showed Sotto trailing Bobby Eusebio with only 8 percent preference ratings compared to Eusebio’s 75 percent. The trend was the same for Publicus’ March survey. Meanwhile, a May survey of RP-Mission and Development Foundation showed Eusebio getting a 61-percent voters’ preference, with Sotto 38 percent.
But K Dela Cruz, a former village captain who fashions himself a kingmaker in Pasig, said early in the campaign he was already seeing how Pasigueños gravitated towards the young candidate.
“Mayor Vico introduced non-traditional campaigning. It’s really different. We never spent a peso whenever we would go to the communities,” he said in Filipino. “He only offers what he can impart in the next 3 years.”
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Sotto explained that he was conscious about running an “alternative campaign."
“As much as I could, I veered away from traditional politics. And I made sure that our campaign was one of substance,” he said.
Sotto usually just walked or stood at the back of a pickup truck and used it as his stage in his sorties.
“During the first few days, our sound system was busted. We didn’t expect that there would be a big crowd. On the second week, there were already people offering to lend us their sound system,” Dela Cruz said. “We were very happy with the reception of the people.”
Sotto, whose mother is veteran actress Coney Reyes, said that while he can’t change the fact that his parents are celebrities, he “made sure it wouldn’t be a showbiz campaign.”
MESSAGE OVER GLITZ
Barangay Manggahan Councilor Quin Cruz, who was part of Sotto’s campaign team, said his team tried to convince Sotto to bring noontime show “Eat Bulaga” to the campaign trail since the public was supposedly used to campaigns that featured a lot of fanfare.
Tito and Vic Sotto are long-time hosts of “Eat Bulaga.”
“But Vico stuck to his principles,” Cruz said, adding that Sotto instructed his team not to follow traditional politicians.
“His father said he could easily bring celebrities to the city but Vico said Pasigueños need something different.”
Throughout his campaign, Sotto focused on his platform which prioritizes health, education and participative governance.
However, he did not stop his family from supporting him. Sotto's staff said that instead of performing for the crowd, his father joined motorcades while his celebrity siblings, Oyo Boy and Danica, attended caucuses. Danica’s husband, basketball player Marc Pingris, also pitched in.
Sotto said he believes he won because of his message of change.
“The reach (of my message) is multiplied, because my father would bring celebrity friends with him. There are people who want to see him, but if there is no message or the message is weak nothing will be multiplied,” Sotto said.
He said the only time someone performed at his campaign was when a celebrity guest volunteered.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Most of Sotto’s campaign was done offline, unlike other candidates who heavily used social media.
Dela Cruz said it was a traditional approach in that sense, because the only way to reach all sectors was through caucuses and house-to-house campaigns. However, it was all done without fanfare.
Pastor Amid Palon of Bread from Heaven Church said seeing Sotto walk around the village, shaking the hands of tricycle drivers and going into narrow alleyways made him appreciate the young candidate.
Palon, who has lived in Pasig his whole life, said it helped to see Sotto face to face when he visited his church back in December.
“We talked to him for about 2 hours. We asked what his plans were,” he said.
Palon said he thought Sotto would use his parents’ influence to help his campaign, “but he was very humble.”
He said he was convinced with Sotto’s plans to make the local government more transparent and to involve people in governance decisions.
Dela Cruz said the strategy was to take the same groundwork approach and then tweak the issues depending on the audience.
“If you’re Class A, we tell them we won’t make it (transactions) difficult for them. Because they had a hard time with the incumbent government in terms of filing for real property taxes, idle land taxes, ad valorem. Running businesses [was] a bit difficult for them,” Dela Cruz said.
Sotto also appealed to poor communities, especially after he used the narrative of the two sides of Pasig.
There’s West Pasig City that features a bustling Ortigas Central Business District, and poverty-stricken East Pasig City, according to Sotto.
“When you go to the east side of Pasig, across the Marikina River, near the Pasig river, that’s where you’ll see that a lot of Pasigueños are still in poverty . . . They haven’t received or they haven’t felt the progress of the city,” Sotto said in his ANC “Headstart” interview.
Pasig is currently the fifth richest city in the country.
Bernadette de Dios, who earns a living through her sari-sari store, said Sotto visited her neighborhood early in the campaign. De Dios and other residents took that opportunity to ask him about the planned demolition of houses along the floodway.
De Dios, who has been living in Pasig for 30 years, said one of her sons already relocated to Taytay, Rizal. But because he couldn’t find work there, he still commutes to Pasig to work as a tricycle driver.
Asked why she voted for Sotto, De Dios said: “He said he will fix the floodway and that if they will demolish houses, it will not happen soon. I hope it does not happen at all.”
Sotto said he has been careful about promising anything to the people.
“I did not spit out promises left and right. That’s what traditional politicians do. My only promise was that I will lead with integrity and that I will not pocket the money of the people . . . Everything else are plans,” he said.
NEW MEDIA FAVORITE
On social media, Sotto has accumulated followers drawn to his fresh take on politics.
Blogger and social media expert Noemi Dado, a Pasig resident, said she first encountered Sotto when his interview with a local radio station was live-tweeted.
Dado said she was initially deterred by the fact that he was a Sotto, especially with some netizens tweeting him not to be like his senator-uncle, who has received flak for some of his actions and statements as a legislator.
“But I was attracted by his message that he will challenge the current administration,” Dado said.
And when Dado finally decided to help campaign for him in her neighborhood, she was surprised to receive tarps that did not bear his face, but only his name and the position he was running for.
“The fact that he didn’t put his face on the tarp, perhaps this candidate will not be like Eusebio,” she said.
In the past, Dado was active in the “anti-epal” campaign online, which involved shaming politicians who put their names in public projects using government funds. It was also one reason why she didn’t like the Eusebios.
“If you really care for the city you won’t really put your name out there. All of the infrastructure that they made were yellow and blue and had a letter e,” Dado said.
“Grandstanding means you are using government funds to perpetually campaign for your future role in the city. If you were a good official, you don’t need to put your name out there, just your actions, the things you do in your community. It’s like [the Eusebios] are planning to rule in Pasig forever.”
Incidentally, one of the hashtags used by Sotto’s opponents was #EusebioForever.
Meanwhile, Sotto said he manages his social media accounts on his own and that his campaign actually did not have a strategy online.
Instead, Dela Cruz said his team used social media as a listening tool. It helped them be aware of the black propaganda against them.
“You can see the points being raised by the people. You can identify which barangay they are coming from. It’s a good indicator,” Dela Cruz said.
“If I see them complaining, I would go there and woo them. I do parallel campaign for the team.”
A few days before the May 13 elections, President Rodrigo Duterte endorsed the candidacy of Sotto and Romulo.
He also talked about how politics in the Philippines has been dominated by the “elite” or the rich families.
He said this after reports that Sotto’s campaign was being sabotaged through denied permits. Electricity was also reportedly cut off where Sotto was holding a campaign rally.
Without naming the Eusebios, Duterte warned: “That kind of politician is rude. You do not belong in politics. I will monitor you. Do you want me to embarrass you before your constituents?”
Sotto, who was not at the campaign rally where Duterte made the statement, admitted that it helped his cause.
“I think the value of the endorsement of President Duterte, a lot of the fear was lifted from the people,” Sotto said.
“Perhaps those who wanted to do something bad had second thoughts because President Duterte already endorsed us… We know here in Pasig there’s also a history of violence. A history of intimidation and threats.”
He said even his supporters received death threats because of his heated rivalry with the Eusebios. The President’s words helped them regain confidence, he said.
SLAYING THE DRAGON
In the end, Sotto slayed the giant and got 209,370 votes against Eusebio’s 121,556.
A breakdown of the votes showed that he won in 28 out of 30 villages. He lost only in two small villages – Bagong Katipunan where he lost by three votes, and Santa Rosa, Eusebio’s bailiwick.
Dela Cruz said Santa Rosa was the only village they were not able to visit because of their tight schedule.
Sotto received at least 60 percent of votes in each of the biggest villages, securing his lead against Eusebio.
Since his win, Sotto has been making headlines as among the country’s promising political leaders. He has been called a “giant-slayer” alongside Mayor-elect Francis Zamora of San Juan, who defeated former senator Jinggoy Estrada's daughter Janella Ejercito Estrada, and Manila Mayor-elect Isko Moreno, who beat deposed President Joseph Estrada in his reelection bid.
Sotto’s followers on Facebook and Twitter have increased by the tens of thousands. Filipino netizens have started tweeting that they would like to move to Pasig.
As of May 22, Sotto has 124,000 followers on Twitter and 195,000 likes on Facebook.
As netizens continued to swoon over the young political star, who, despite his seeming reluctance, has become a media favorite, Pasig residents wait and see if his promise of change will come true.
WAITING FOR CHANGE
Residents interviewed by ABS-CBN News said they decided to vote for the young mayor-elect because of his #ibanaman (for a change) campaign, not because he comes from a family of celebrities.
“For a change,” said shop owner Miles Avila. “There are a lot of cases of theft and other crimes happening here. There are also reports of drugs. I hope this can be addressed.”
Heber Reyes, a retired technician, said he also voted for Sotto because he is young. “He can still do a lot. The first thing he should address are the drug pushers and users.”
Former senator Rene Saguisag, who was born and raised in Pasig, said voters could have been influenced by the feeling that it’s “time for a change.”
“The phenomenon did not occur only in my beloved paternal hometown. Manila, Makati, San Juan, Cebu City, all the way to Bebot Alvarez's turf (Davao del Norte). The winds of change,” Saguisag told ABS-CBN News.
Ateneo School of Government Dean Ronald Mendoza, who was also Sotto’s professor in graduate school, said delivering change is much harder than defeating a political dynasty.
Mendoza said a local race gives more opportunity to discuss issues with the people, and this was where Sotto delivered.
“His last name also helped… I hope he can convince his family for them not to become a ‘fat dynasty,’” Mendoza said, explaining that the Sottos – with the Senate President and his son Vice Mayor Gian Sotto – are still considered a “lean dynasty.”
Saguisag advised Sotto to “take the high road and stay there even if it means opposing the Palace from time to time.”
But Mendoza admitted that it is hard to maintain youthful idealism.
He said there are two options for young public servants like Sotto: become a traditional politician or continue fighting corruption but create a lot of enemies in the process.
“Because they have so many critics, they might not be able to win in their next election. One example is Fr. Ed Panlilio of Pampanga,” Mendoza said, recalling how Panlilio’s strategy failed and the political dynasty, the long-ruling Pinedas, was able to return to power.
Instead, Mendoza suggested following the middle path like that of the late Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo.
“His model of governance then was citizen’s participation…And he really reached out to different political parties and groups to help reform the city.”
Mendoza said the people who voted for Sotto also have a responsibility to support him.
“If we put them in that position and we don’t support them, they will end up becoming traditional politicians because they can’t find allies,” Mendoza said, explaining that previous administrations often leave traps for the new official to make it harder for them to enact reforms.
“He must remember that he only has three years to prove the narrative (of change), that it works,” Mendoza said.
For his part, Sotto said he would try his best to keep his idealism grounded in reality.
He has also started looking for people to help him as he transitions into the mayoral post.
“I need to be surrounded by experts. I can’t do it alone. I can be realistic but if it’s just me in this fight, I won’t survive,” Sotto said. He said he would seek out people who are “competent, with integrity and who share [his] ideas and principles.”