POLITICS

Isko Moreno's road to mayoralty

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Mayor Isko Moreno has been a public servant for 21 years now. He discusses his arduous political campaign, his plans for the city of Manila, and the lessons that have guided him throughout his career. Photo by PAU VILLANUEVA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2017, a video of former president Joseph Estrada picking up trash from Manila Bay circulated online. What was revealed, however, was that Estrada’s team first poured trash into the water before the former mayor picked them up.

Isko Moreno, then newly defeated from the 2016 senatorial race, saw the video and found it incredulous. “Sabi ko, ‘Oh my god, there must be something wrong,’” he says.

“When [Estrada] was asked, ‘Sir, what can you say na ‘yung ginawa ninyo ay nagtapon muna kayo ng basura?’ Then he said, ‘It was only for publicity,’” Moreno adds, mimicking Estrada’s coarse, action-star voice. “Kung ganon, kawawa naman [ang Maynila].”

For the entire duration of Joseph Estrada’s leadership, Moreno repeatedly says how he never made comments during Estrada’s term, quietly letting him be even when he saw how the problems in Manila were scarcely addressed: the age-old problem of trash, the underdevelopment, the squalor.

“I couldn't take it,” he says, then quotes the Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “For evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

When Moreno was thinking about running for mayor, he reached out to his local party to test his odds for the midterm elections. Of the 36 councilors, 23 instantly unofficially pledged allegiance to him. Photo by PAU VILLANUEVA

From basurero to politiko

Growing up in the slums of Tondo, Manila, Moreno saw how his parents constantly struggled to put food on the table. At a young age, he took it upon himself to push carts filled with scraps of garbage, which he then sells at local junk dealers.

“‘Pag kinuha ko ‘yung aluminum, kumuha ako ng tansong dilaw, tansong pula, carton, o pag binenta ko ‘yan may pera nako, may chicha na ako, may pagkain na kami,” he recalls.

Sometimes, he would also scavenge for leftover food that his mom can re-cook as meals. It looked as though his circumstance was set up to fail him, similar to many Filipino households who can barely make a living. But luck had other plans.

“Talagang gusto kong matuto. Madali kasing tumakbo eh,” he says. “But di ‘to ganito kasimple. It can change the course of a person’s life journey.”

Armed with a boyish smile and a chiseled nose, he was scouted to be part of Kuya Germs’ iconic T.V. variety show, “That’s Entertainment.” From there, he began his career in show business and was able to lift his family out of poverty.

In 1998, he thought of running for councilor in the city of Manila. He admits that there was no deep, epiphanous moment that led him to that decision. “I just felt so blessed so sige nga try ko nga,” he says.

He did win, but it came with challenges; difficulties not only brought by socioeconomic problems of the city he’s trying to serve but by colleagues who looked at him merely as a high-school-graduate-turned-artista. He was only 23 years old then and did not know a thing about local legislation. He was an opportunist, detractors would say.

During council sessions, he would share ideas that was easily dismissed by more senior, more experienced colleagues. He felt embarrassed by his inadequacy; unsettled by not being articulate enough, not educated enough to share his vision. His inexperience was made fun at, his being an “artista” always leveraged against him.

“Nakutsaan na ako. Nakatikim na ako ng mga masasakit na salita,” he says. “Dahil hindi raw ako nag-aral, so I went back to school.”

He took classes on local legislation at the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration and Governance, studied public administration at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, learned law at the Arellano University, signed up for courses at Harvard University and Oxford University — all while being a councilor for another two terms.

By the end of the campaign for the mayoral post, Moreno was able to go to 47,000 households, talking to families within one-meter distance, in the span of eight months. Photo by PAU VILLANUEVA

Rising the ranks

In 2007, he ran as vice mayor, won, and served under the leadership of then-Mayor Alfredo Lim. He won the same post in 2013 and served under then-Mayor Estrada. In the course of being vice mayor, he was nudged to run for mayor but felt he still needed more experience.

“Talagang gusto kong matuto. Madali kasing tumakbo eh,” he says. “But di ‘to ganito kasimple. It can change the course of a person’s life journey.”

By 2016, he thought it was his turn to lead Manila. Estrada, after all, had told the media that he will endorse Moreno. “Records will show Erap said [he will serve for only] one term … In all forms or source of media, he made that commitment,” he says. “It turned out, in the middle of the ball game, things happened not the way it was supposed to be.”

Moreno, 41 years old at that time, felt maybe he could serve in other ways. He ran for senate but only ranked 15th. “Then ‘yun after that wala na. That's it for me,” he says.

Just when he thought he was done with public service, in 2017, he was appointed by President Duterte as the chairman of the North Luzon Railways Corporation and in 2018, he was again appointed to be the Department of Social Welfare and Development Undersecretary for Luzon affairs.

However, he grew more unsatisfied with how his beloved city of Manila was ran. Moreno then reached out to his local party to test his odds for the midterm elections. Of the 36 councilors, 23 instantly unofficially pledged allegiance to him. Little did the public know that he was already setting up the groundwork for a 2019 local chief executive victory.

Once taunted for only finishing high school, Moreno has now made it a personal mission to learn as many things as possible. He enrolled in prestigious universities and read about the works of the world's best leaders. Photo by PAU VILLANUEVA

The road to mayoralty

Moreno’s campaign focused on his story — the classic “success story” that the general public seem to be hungry for. Besides his personal narrative, he also knew he needed to express his vision to as many people as possible. By the end of the campaign, he was able to go to 47,000 households, talking to families within one-meter distance, in the span of eight months. He says they employed Barack Obama’s 2007 door-to-door strategy — the on-the-ground mobilization that has proven to work time and again.

But perhaps unlike Obama, Moreno had to deal with “trapo-type” propaganda. A month before the midterm elections, an employee of the Manila City Hall posted a video of motorcycle riders who were taking Moreno’s campaign materials down. Moreno also says that there were reports of his posters having bullet holes on top of the usual comments he’s had throughout his political career — that he’s only an artista, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing even when he’s been in public service for 21 years.

“I was taught by my mother, ‘Wag mo intindihin ang sinasabi ng ibang tao hindi naman makakain ‘yan,’” he says. “Gusto nila maging abala ako kakasagot sa kanila. So that I cannot say anymore what my plans, dreams, aspirations, and visions are for the city of Manila.”

The first thing he’ll do as mayor is implement the “Pagkain sa Basura” program, which aims to incentivize the collection of garbage by exchanging the collected items with food or coupons.

On May 13, Moreno officially bested Lim and Estrada, garnering over 350,000 votes. Now that he is mayor-elect, he still speaks of the same plans that he’s laid out to the 47,000 families he engaged with.

He talks about a 10-year project that would involve strengthening infrastructure development, urban housing, and domestic tourism. He plans to turn Escolta into a hub akin to Singapore’s Clark Quay as well as attract creatives and artists back to Malate. Urban housing complexes will have a financing scheme similar to the socialized project of the Home Development Board of Singapore.

Continuously learning, he shares how his plans are largely from books, blueprints, and speeches by world leaders he’s studied and listened to. He reads works of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, India’s Irinda Gandhi, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, U.S.’s Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, among many others.

But of all his grand plans, the first thing he’ll do as mayor is implement the “Pagkain sa Basura” program, which aims to incentivize the collection of garbage by exchanging the collected items with food or coupons. “Kathang isip ko ‘yun kasi ‘yung experience ko ganon,” he shares. “I don't know how if it's going to be effective but it will be done.”

It seems that Moreno’s road to mayoralty was founded on his very personal experience with trash. His formative years were spent rummaging garbage cans for food, his definitive decision to run for mayor was sparked by a leader’s seeming disregard of trash, and now the first thing he’ll do as mayor is to address the issue of garbage.

Moreno has peppered the interview with quotes that he’s picked up from thinkers, statesmen, and heroes, like a kid repeating what wise elders say. When asked about his guiding principle, he again echoes a famous line, one that is consistent to the image, the character, and the story that he’s presented to the public: “Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”