The Evolution of Leni Robredo: How the VP Underdog Became the Race’s Strongest Contender

Leni Robredo talks to Rogue about her political awakening

by Paolo Enrico Melendez, photo by JL Javier

Miles apart from the widow-in-grief persona that brought her to public renown, Leni Robredo has come into her own since plunging into the vice presidential race. As her numbers continue to strengthen in the leadup to the May polls, she talks to Rogue about her political awakening, navigating the trapo culture of the countryside, and taking on the big sharks of the national political arena, all the while sticking to the causes of the grassroots that have become integral to her narrative—one that might end with her assuming the second highest seat in the land

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Portrait by JL Javier.

It’s an overcast February weekend. The country is midway to its next presidential elections. Posters dot streets. Ads interrupt TV and radio programs. News both professional and vetted, made-up and hysterical, blanket social media like so much early summer grime.

I am at a private home in an exclusive subdivision out in the suburbs. It’s a bungalow, but of the kind that requires a lot of flattering adjectives to describe. Spacious living room. Well-appointed kitchen. Even an elegant lanai. Right by the classy dinner table is a grand spread, of the kind one would see on equally grand occasions. The china is heavy and the slim drinking glasses come in cosies. And on one of the handsome couches sits Leni Robredo, the newcomer congresswoman with a background in community work and a reputation for tsinelas leadership. She is in plain flats, and a shirt that is approaching that worn look that luxury brands seem to go for these days, only hers looks organically so. To be perfectly honest, she looks a little out of place.

Robredo is chatting with her staff about a recent mall trip to buy a new belt. “Nahuhulog na ang mga pantalon ko,” she says with a laugh. More people recognize her these days, too. “I ask them, ‘Paano mo ako nakilala?’ And then I remember that I’m in the middle of a campaign.” She admits that the recognition is still novel.

That’s downplaying her own renown, of course. Robredo first captured public attention in 2012 as the grieving but composed widow of cabinet secretary and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Jesse Robredo, who died in a plane crash earlier that same year. She later moved on to pummel a 40-year-old political dynasty in Bicol, coming out from NGO obscurity to secure 80 percent of the province’s popular vote. Her reputation for good governance is such that, as presidential candidate Mar Roxas’s running mate, Robredo seems (even to casual political observers) to be somewhat of a one-woman PR solution for the Liberal Party: the known mass to the LP’s own unquantified fumbling, keeping the balance scale of public opinion steady if not quite dead even.

In 2014, a photo of the congresswoman waiting alone for a Naga-bound red-eye bus went viral. The image seemed to inspire copycat; Everyman portraits of every other national candidate popped up looking to drum up some street cred. The thing is, the savvier among us will point out that such photos—in-queue at the airport or mid-meal in a crummy eatery—have more capacity to weird us out rather than move us. Why, after all, would someone flaunt participating in something the rest of us would gleefully bypass, given the chance? The key difference between Robredo’s photo and the rest is something PR guys can’t hack: stark, shocking, and undeniable ordinariness. The photo looks accidental, even, as though some hipster just wanted to Instagram a snap of urban decay, and a woman in a blue shirt and two big shoulder bags happened to be in-frame.

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At the start of the 90-day campaign trail, Robredo expressed her determination to reach as many corners of the country as possible. “Kung kailangang magtrabaho tayo ng doble o triple, gagawin ko upang maabot ang lahat ng Pilipino at maiparating sa kanila ang mga plano’t programa natin para sa kanila at sa buong bansa,” she told Rogue.

Born Maria Leonor Gerona, Leni Robredo says that her legal career was a given. The eldest among her siblings, taking up law “was my sentence,” she says. Her father, Antonio Gerona, was an RTC judge who later presided over the heinous crimes court.

Growing up, she was used to her father bringing home people who needed one form of assistance or another. When the typhoons rolled in, as they do so frequently in the Bicol region, the Robredo bungalow became a de facto evacuation center. The family culture was only reinforced by schooling under the Vincentian Daughters of Charity. “Yung mga laruan namin, binibigay sa mga ibang bata,” she says, “Kahit gusto pa namin.”

She was an Economics sophomore at the University of the Philippines when Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated, an event Robredo considers her political awakening. “I started joining protest actions. By the time I graduated, EDSA had happened, and I was inspired to work for government.” The elder Gerona allowed her, on condition that her civil service be limited to a single year.

While working at a river development office, she met Jesse Robredo, then a former corporate executive turned public official. The two would marry two years later.

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With her late husband Jesse Robredo, former Secretary of the Interior Local Government. In August 2012, he passed away in a plane crash off the coast of Masbate.

She joined the Public Attorney’s office after passing the bar. Her husband was mayor by then. Jueteng had popped up in town, and the mayor cracked down hard on the bookies. As PAO attorney, Robredo found herself defending the very people her husband was working to put away. “Pinapahuli ni mayor, pinapalaya ni misis,” was the local joke. “My husband understood that it was part of my work,” she says. But both knew that it was a contradiction they could not abide.

It was then that Robredo landed a gig with SALIGAN (Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Pangligal), an alternative legal support group, begun in Ateneo de Manila University and based in Bicol. “We were like community organizers,” she says of their work. The team would trek to far-flung communities with little to no access to legal aid, and provide paralegal help. “We believed that knowing the law puts one in a better position to defend one’s rights,” she said. The SALIGAN lawyers would spend three to four days in the field, laymanizing legalese, and conducting legal clinics and briefings.

It was tough work. In farming communities, the team would be housed in the unwalled shacks used by farmers to rest in at noon. In fishing communities, the team would sleep in fishing boats, only to be roused late at night when it was time for the fishermen to push out to sea. They slept in neighborhoods facing demolition.

More disheartening than the physical difficulties were systemic hurdles. “The traditional legal mindset is, ‘That’s the law. You have to abide.’ In alternative law, which was our mindset, ‘If the law isn’t just, change it,’” she says. The team would write draft amendments, which they then peddled to local officials and national lawmakers. Few listened. “Palagi kaming talo ng malalaki.”

To the younger Robredo, that was the biggest hindrance to development. “In the traditional model of governance, binibigay ang solusyon. But I believe you have to create an environment in which the citizens are given a voice, and therefore become stakeholders.”

She spent a decade with SALIGAN. “I told my husband once, ‘That’s where I found myself.’ If I had been allowed to continue working for SALIGAN while serving in congress, I would have continued.” Robredo found triumph in the group’s little gains.“Basta keep pushing forward,” she says. And the experience helped her as a Representative. “I was naive to think na ang mga batas na naiisip ko, mapapasa,” she says with a laugh. “You have to compromise to get those little gains. Natutunan ko iyong sikmurain.”

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Robredo engaging with corn farmers of Compostela Valley last October.

Back in the subdivision, Robredo does another interview, on video this time, with a positive action youth group. The questions are in English, but she answers in Filipino.

The group is frequently interrupted. The village sits right under the final approach to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and planes pass at regular intervals. Through it all, Robredo stays composed, making jokes about the noises, going over her lines, adjusting the lapel mike that she seems uncomfortable wearing.

At one point, somebody’s car alarm goes off, once, then again. The interview begins to stretch beyond the allotted time. When the alarm goes off yet again, a staff member rushes out of the garage. But Robredo calls after her, saying they can’t shush the neighbors, better to adjust the day’s schedule instead.

The whole scene is characteristic of the low-key Robredo, who has none of the usual pulitiko’s grand gestures and careful speech. In fact, she speaks so casually in conversation that her choice of words can sometimes be alarming. For instance, earlier in my interview with her, she described her husband’s pioneering civic work in Naga as a “guinea pig” experiment. I almost dropped my pen.

She is even more plainspoken when talking about the event that initially thrust her into the life of politics. “When I left NGO work, I considered the judiciary as my next step.” It was the more stable option for a wife and mother, and something that she was personally excited to take on. “I was influenced by my husband’s work,” she says.

But that arch was cut short by the death of her husband, when the small plane he was riding crashed just off Masbate—the very province in which Robredo spent so much of her time organizing rural communities. In the confusion of those last few moments, Robredo managed to contact her husband, whose last words to her were “Tatawagan na lang kita. May inaasikaso lang ako.” In Robredo’s interior monologue “Sana mabuhay” turned into “Sana mahanap ang katawan”—until her husband finally was recovered three days later. Jesse Robredo was 54. It was a month after the couple’s silver anniversary.

Jesse Robredo’s death led to a party vacuum in Naga. Faced with a split leadership, the LP called on Robredo to be the unifying candidate in the next elections. Her children begged her to decline, but Robredo promised them that it would just be a three-year stint.

Out on the campaign trail was just like out on community work for Robredo, in that it was make-do and jury-rig as she went along. “I needed a sound system. The cheapest was P7,000. I couldn’t afford that.” A friend donated a rechargeable speaker, the kind one has to charge forever. And it was so small that Robredo had to keep her meetings small.

Which was just as well. Of the eight mayors in her district, only one was supportive; of 186 barangays, only 25. She was denied barangay halls or covered courts. “Parang sine. Pagdating mo, sasaraduhan ka.” So she talked to voters in residential yards, speaking to 10, 20 people at a time, from five A.M. well into the night. It would take her two whole days to finish a single barangay. Then her opponent would move in, with bands, singers, dancers, and a raffle of appliances. In those rallies, the people would number in the hundreds.

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Speaking in Laguna last November, Robredo displayed a relaxed stance, and spoke mostly in conversational Filipino. In many sorties around the country, she sticks to her agenda of championing the slipper-clad citizens in the fringes of society. “Ibinibigay ko po ng buong-buo ang aking sarili sa ating mga kababayan,” she said at Club Filipino the day she officially accepted the LP invitation to run as the party’s VP bet.

Papaano naman ako mananalo nito?” she admits to having thought at the time. We all know how this sub-plot ends.

It’s such a quixotically Filipino narrative. Perhaps alarmingly easy to exploit, too. Because here again is Robredo, reprising her role as reluctant candidate. Was she pressured to run for a position she didn’t want because she would give the larger party a better chance at bagging votes? There is an undeniable disconnect between what Robredo stands for and how her party has been behaving. One values good governance, the other has shown a pigheaded refusal to ax inept but loyal appointees. One works to educate, the other is restructuring national education towards a more employable but arguably less critically-equipped workforce.

At one point in our interview, Robredo said with obvious pride that the fishermen they gave legal clinics to eventually became the stewards of the waters in which they fished. But then, her face turning grave, Robredo told me that the same fishermen were later sued by, and lost to, a group of large fishing companies. And right there is the most striking contradiction, in that the candidate seeks to empower the public space, and the party seems all too willing to slash the safety nets from under our feet in a flurry of public-private partnerships and other concessions to big business. We are one of the worst countries in the world in unsolved media murders. Ours is a moribund Freedom of Information bill. And we have the collapse of the Basic Bangsamoro Law as full stop to all attempted elaborations on inclusive growth. That the latter two were laws Robredo herself had worked unsuccessfully to pass is just a well-timed cymbal accent to a bad joke.

There was certainly no clarity to Robredo’s motivation for running in the early months of the race. The public version of the story has it that she did a bit of soul searching, asked her daughters for their permission, and finally agreed, with a host of riders to the deal.

These days, she is more forthright. “I think I can do more in the Executive branch. That’s the attraction for me, the pot of gold. There’s so much possibility.” She also reveals a more personal reason. “For a very long time, I was used to being in the shadow of everyone else. Even as a congresswoman. Ngayon, ako na.”

She did not like how things changed at first. “Nahirapan ako. It was a complete 360. I spoke to 1,200 people at the Araneta once. I thought, ‘May makinig kaya sa akin?’ But I’m more energized now. My eyes are open, even if I’m still a little naïve.”

That’s great for her. But it’s heartbreaking to think what else politics will demand Robredo to surrender. “My daughters and I miss being together most,” she says of the personal toll. “Honestly, that’s why I had trouble getting their approval at first. That is our biggest sacrifice.” And there’s the matter of her reputation, too. For instance, pre-campaign spending disclosures had people in a rage for the absurd amounts. News like that will hurt any candidate, even Robredo, who seems to be largely unhitched to the bigger LP machinery.

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Posing for Rogue in February in between interviews and a meet-and-greet with supporters in Parañaque, in a house owned by one of her staff. Portrait by JL Javier.

Robredo’s last engagement in the subdivision is a rally at the village basketball court, in a continuation of her favored grassroots approach to winning supporters. Pundits say she needs more visibility, and it’s easy to agree. But her methods have been subjectively and quantitively effective: she is the least targeted candidate in the vitriolic memes circulating on social media, and she has been steadily climbing the survey results, from the bottom of the vice-presidential pack in October last year, to a statistical tie for second place with two other candidates as of March of the current year.

Large streamers on the chicken wire enclosure welcome Robredo. On the bleachers are large plastic bags crammed with styrofoam bowls ready to be used for lugaw: the highlight of the day’s rally. There are perhaps 250 people inside the court, 300 tops. Some flash yellow banners with Robredo’s name in big bold letters. Others wave giant foam hands in the Aquino “L” sign. Among the crowd are the village power brokers. They are easy to spot, sitting on the sidelines or at the very last row of monobloc chairs. They wear the best clothes. They are always the first to clap. They have a grave, scrutinizing air about them, like they have the most to gain in a successful turnout to the rally.

On stage, Robredo’s body language is relaxed. She talks about advocating comprehensive reform instead of piecemeal change, government investment, public over private interest. She says our most urgent task is to improve transportation infrastructure in the provinces and focus anti-poverty programs so that the countryside can see an increase in jobs and services. It’s all very policy-oriented, and therefore very different from the advocacy-level mindset she had as an NGO worker.

Then her speech turns anecdotal—the same story she shared with me, made general for a broader audience. The crowd takes her story in. The respectful vibe is impressive. She says “guinea pig” again, and this time I want to cheer.

It’s photo op time after the speech ends, and I observe people gravitating first toward the power brokers, who then direct them up to the stage in waves, like elders sending grandchildren off with their blessings. Off to the edges, lugaw begins to be served. The distinctive smell fills the air: ginger and green onion and garlic and calamansi. As people take selfies with Robredo, the candidate’s campaign jingle starts playing over the PA system, loud and impossible to ignore: an earworm, sure, but more than a little lyrically forced, and definitely melodically cornball. It is in this moment that one can see most clearly what Leni Robredo was, and what she has become.

How will she fare, in the end, is of course a matter of conjecture. But we as observers have a clue to go on. When her husband’s body was retrieved, Robredo was told not to look. But she insisted. “I remember,” she says of that day. “It was a metal casket. Inside the casket was a body bag. My husband was under the sea for three days.” And after the briefest of pauses, she concludes, “Nakita ko.” A woman facing the most profound of changes, doubt doused by confronting a wound.