Jesse and Leni, persons for others

Exactly six years ago, on August 18, 2012, Jesse Robredo’s plane crashed in Masbate. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal when I heard the news. While hoping he would survive the crash, I knew in my heart that we had likely lost this champion of good governance, my colleague in the faculty of Ateneo School of Government, comrade in the Kaya Natin Movement, and my friend. While still praying I would not need to use it, I began writing an obituary to celebrate the life of a good public servant.

On his sixth death anniversary and by way of showing solidarity with his wife Leni Robredo, now the Vice-President of the Philippines and constantly being attacked by the President and critics, I recall passages from that obituary originally entitled, “Jesse Robredo, man for others.

Jesse and I belonged to the same generation of Ateneans. He was a student of Ateneo de Naga High School at the same time I was studying in Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan. He must have been exposed to the same Jesuit mantra as all of us in that generation were: “You are called to be men and women for others”, a phrase coined by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, Father General of the Society of Jesus, in a 1973 speech to alumni of Jesuit schools.

More than anything, as a leader’s leader, a servant of the people, and a family man, Jesse Robredo was truly a man for others. According to Arrupe, a man-and-woman-for others lived simply, committed to a life of service, and sought to change unjust social structures.

This is an accurate description of Jesse Robredo and how he lived both his private and public life. This too describes very well Leni Robredo.

Jesse Robredo lived simply. Stories abound of how Jesse was so unassuming, dressed always modestly, lived in ordinary abodes (not villas nor mansions), had simple (but great) tastes in food, and was always comfortable, as the Mayor of Naga and Interior Secretary, to “mix it up” with his constituents and his staff. Indeed, as one of his staff commented on television, he enjoyed more being with people on the ground and the streets than in social events.

Leni Robredo lives very simply too. Her bus trips to Naga are well known. Her celebrations with her children, for their milestones, are never ostentatious. When daughter Aika was studying in Harvard, photos of their search for second hand furniture went viral. The ignorant and the malicious went ballistic in their attacks then but those of us who have done graduate school in the United States knew that the Robredos were just doing what everyone did.

This simplicity was is not just a personal, private thing for the Robredos. As government official, both Jesse and Leni are known also for their thriftiness. He rejected all types of extravagance and was extra careful with the people’s money. Jesse’s record at the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) showed how transparent and scrupulous he was about government finances. Because of this, he made many political enemies but he persisted and eventually the DILG bureaucracy, as did the Naga City Hall, became more appreciative of what he was doing.

Likewise, the Office of the Vice-President (OVP) thrives on a modest budget, even as it delivers on its mandate for the marginalized. I must also say how impressed I am with the staff of the OVP, on their work ethics and focus on outcomes.

Jesse Robredo lived a life of service with a strong commitment to help the poor.

This preferential option for the poor defined and determined Jesse’s days as a mayor and DILG Secretary. He worked hard and demanded excellence from himself and from those who worked with him. But he did not do this because he was a perfectionist. He did and sought the best because he wanted the best for the Filipino people and especially the poor. He treated rich and poor people alike but clearly his heart belonged to the poor. That was why the delivery of basic services was so central to him as a public official.

This commitment to the poor also characterizes the professional life of Vice-President Robredo. Before becoming a public official, she was part of the community of Alternative Lawyering, of which I am a pioneer. In that community, we use the law to benefit the poor and marginalized.

In Congress, Leni Robredo consistently took on causes for social justice – consistent in her support for agrarian reform, labor rights, indigenous peoples, urban poor, and environmental justice. In her brief stint as the Duterte cabinet member in charge of housing, her pro-poor stance was unwavering.

In his 1973 speech, Fr. Arrupe said that men and women for others must have “a firm resolve to be agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them”. How accurate a description this is of the kind of leaders and public servant Jesse Robredo was. This is who Leni Robredo is.

If Leni Robredo becomes president of the Philippines, we will be so fortunate. She will be our first president who has a human rights background; she will give justice to the nearly thirty thousand who have died in Duterte’s war against illegal drugs which is nothing more than a war against the poor.

If Leni Robredo becomes president, she will be our first president who has directly worked with the basic sectors and poor communities. She will put the country on a path of peace with its revolutionary groups by implementing necessary socio-economic reforms.

If Leni Robredo becomes president, we will see a dynamic, professional, and competent leader. I am convinced that she will establish a government of national reconciliation, that would not necessarily be dominated by the old Aquino coalition (most of whom are now with Duterte anyway) but by a Team Philippines that truly has the best and brightest servant leaders in this country.

Change, good and authentic change, will truly come when Leni Robredo becomes president of this country. I am convinced of that. It will be such a relief to the chaos and corruption of this government.

I ended my 2012 obituary with the hope that we can all be men-and-women-for-others. I said we can all be like Jesse Robredo and serve the people and country, without fanfare, with utmost sincerity, with the best that we can do. And we can make a difference. I wrote then – “If we want to honor Jesse’s memory, let us remember this and not be defeated by this sad moment.” I am glad that his wife, life-partner, and mother of his children, was not defeated by his death. The children too not only survived but have overcome well the challenges they faced in losing a father.

Leni Robredo  is a person for others and the country is so fortunate that she is our Vice-President and constitutionally the only successor to President Duterte.

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