Jesse M. Robredo exercised frontline leadership in an excellent way as Naga City mayor and then Secretary of Interior and Local Government. He had soared ahead despite the deadweight of a powerful uncle, Camarines Sur Representative Luis Robredo Villafuerte, who opposed his nephew throughout most of his political career.
Some deadweight also came from Pres. Noynoy Aquino who treated Robredo like a second-class cabinet member by not submitting his name to the Commission on Appointments for 16 months and by denying him the full powers of a DILG Secretary and instead giving supervision over police affairs to Usec. Rico Puno, one of the president's shooting buddies who had shallow and dubious qualifications. Also, unlike several other cabinet members, Robredo was never praised or mentioned by Noynoy during his 2010, 2011 and 2012 State of the Nation Addresses.
Jesse Robredo was an excellent public servant. As Naga City mayor for 19 years (1988-1998, 2001-2010), he walked the straight path in his exercise of leadership. For example, the City Administrator of Naga narrated:
“The Mayor once officiated at a wedding. He was given P200,000 in an envelope. When he got back to City Hall, he ordered that a receipt be prepared. He said that we will use it to construct a school and he will show it to the couple so that we can ask for more donations. I admired him. He didn’t get the money even though nobody knew about it.”
Other anecdotes about Robredo can be found in "Breaking New Ground: A Profile of Mayor Jesse M. Robredo” by Francis Isaac and Joy Aceron, in Frontline Leadership: Stories of 5 Local Chief Executives, edited by A. Medel, M. Lopa-Perez, and D. Gonzalez, and published in 2007 (ISBN 978-971-92495-2-8).
Robredo transformed Naga from a 3rd class city into a 1st class city and the premier city in the Bicol region. Average household incomes in Naga are 42% higher than the national average and 126% higher than the Bicol average.
Naga has received so many national and international awards such as the 1997 Galing Pook Hall of Fame Award for Excellence in Local Governance, the 2004 Outstanding City School Board Program, and the 2004 UN Public Service Award for ICT Application in Local Government.
Among the many awards Robredo himself has received are the 1996 Konrad Adenauer Medal of Excellence, the 1999 Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines, and the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service.
To institutionalize transparency and participatory governance in local legislation and policy-making, Robredo pushed for a city ordinance that established the Naga City People’s Council, which is a federation of local non-government organizations. The People’s Council operates as an active and official partner, monitor, and evaluator of the city government. Robredo also instituted the uploading in the city government website of all its procurements, transactions, and licensing procedures and systems.
At the end of his third consecutive term as mayor in 1998, Robredo did not run for another elective office, nor did he field Leni, his wife who is a lawyer, or any relative for the mayoral post. Instead, he returned to private life and pursued and completed a master’s degree in public administration at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University. Leni and he dislike the establishment of a political dynasty.
Robredo once said in an interview that the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on 21 August 1983 jolted him and made him resolve to do more for the country. Two days after the assassination, he joined the thousands who lined up to view the remains and pay their last respects. Afterwards, he participated in protest marches against the Marcos dictatorship, despite the fact that he was a manager in the distribution department of Magnolia Dairy Products, a subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), which was controlled by known Marcos crony, Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco.
Before he first ran and won as mayor in 1988, Jesse Robredo was helped by his uncle and mentor, Luis Robredo Villafuerte. As Chairman of a presidential commission under then Pres. Corazon Aquino, Villafuerte obtained a government position for Robredo, who was appointed head of the Bicol River Basin Development Project. The position helped give Robredo, who was a Manila-based manager of SMC, the necessary public exposure in Naga City before his uncle encouraged and supported him to run for mayor.
During his 1st year as mayor, however, Robredo and his uncle became adversaries over jueteng, an illegal gambling activity. Robredo enforced the illegality of jueteng. Ever since, Villafuerte has considered Robredo ungrateful, and has strongly and publicly opposed him through all his electoral battles.
Although he was born and raised in a middle-class family, Robredo understands poverty and the life of the poor. He said in an interview:
“I grew up with my friends who were squatters living at the back of our house. My basketball teammates were all poor. When I was already in La Salle, those that I got to play basketball with didn’t go to college. Somehow, it gave me a more balanced view that there are poor people that needed to be helped.”
Robredo's long stint at Naga City also showed that he had the necessary cunning and administrative and political skills. As a Japanese researcher on Naga City and Philippine politics attested:
“Robredo has demonstrated his uniquely capable administrative abilities. He has been able to manage two seemingly contradictory tasks: keeping the city government on a sound financial footing and maintaining his strong political machine.” (Takeshi Kawanaka, Power in a Philippine City, Chiba, 2002)
I distinctly remember how I was impressed by the modest and low-key character of Mayor Jesse whenever he would be invited to give a talk to the off-campus Master in Public Management students of the Ateneo School of Government in several locales outside the National Capital Region. He was already a "superstar" for local governance teachers and students, but he never acted like one.
Robredo had broken new ground as Naga City mayor and DILG Secretary. I dare say that he surely is in God's glorious presence. In Naga, he always began his mornings by going to the Basilica of Our Lady of Penafrancia to pray. He had a priest-confessor and spiritual director whom he consulted regularly despite his busy schedule as a hard-working public servant.
Jesse Robredo will be sorely missed. May his family, friends and admirers find comfort despite his unexpected passing. May his spirit live on in many Filipinos.