Sen. Richard Gordon
Tough love from Dick
By Rome Jorge - Sunday Times
“THERE’s a lot of talk about service. That’s only lip service. You have to lead. And to lead means you have to tell people what they need to do even if it’s tough to do. Because I believe people will follow when a vision is presented to them. A leader is not afraid to share his vision and exact the sacrifices because he believes it will work for the benefit of the people,” declares Sen. Richard Gordon, a toughie who’s so passionate about the things he fights for, he comes close to tears.
As mayor of Subic City, he outlawed bums and idiots, quite literally. “Bawal ang tamad sa Subic [Lazy people are not allowed in Subic],” and “Bawal ang tanga sa Subic [Stupid people are not allowed in Subic],” were his famously brutal slogans to inculcate the values of work ethic and education in a city that was nothing more than sleazy honky-tonks and was once populated by hustlers and panhandlers. Today, the city as well as the former military base that once made Subic the vice capital of Asia are now discipline zones that keep transients on their toes and make locals proud.
As head of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), he asked big things of small people. He rallied volunteers to safeguard the former American military base from looters after the US Navy’s departure. “More than 8,000 volunteers initially showed up. And then it rose to 23,000. They worked without pay,” recalls Gordon. They spruced up Subic’s spartan facilities into a world-class industrial zone and tourism hub.
As tourism secretary, he galvanized the hospitality industry during the toughest of times. When the spate of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic had scared away many foreign tourists, Gordon redefined the world’s vision of the country with his unforgettable WOW Philippines campaign that boosted industry revenues. He even kick-started local tourism by informing Filipinos of the peerless beauty of their own country.
As chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, he gets going when the going gets tough, most notably during the quake that devastated Cabanatuan, Baguio, La Union and Pangasinan; the eruption that smothered Mount Pinatubo; and typhoons that flooded Ormoc, Cebu, Negros and Central Luzon. It was he who asked the US military to lend their heavy lifting equipment and air transport to rescue and recover victims of the recent mudslide in Leyte.
And should he become the president one day, he’ll ask for tough, highly unpopular sacrifices from you and me.
He cites an example: “I’ve filed a bill here that isn’t popular. Tax text (mobile-phone messages). Tax every phone call one peso. Let me implement it just for five years. If the text messaging is 300 million and it falls to 200 million (after taxes) a day, you still have P70 billion in one year. Imagine what you could do with that, how many schools you could build? You could pump-prime the economy by building schools and creating jobs in the countryside. You could also close the gap in teacher education. After you’ve built the schools and bought the computers, there’s much less to spend on. Five years is all I ask.”
Gordon asserts, “A leader must enable and ennoble his people. He mustn’t make them dependent. Make them dependent and you disable them. They have been disabled enough by the colonial past. Don’t you notice that in my time in Olongapo and Subic, I made people work?”
His plan: “Give them a vision. Draw out their values. Tell them they can help by being a volunteer. And you will have victory.”
Is Gordon exactly what we need? One thing is clear: with such toughness, you can’t keep a man like Gordon down.
The comeback kid
Born August 5, 1945, in Castillejos, Zambales, Gordon has both Filipino and American military heritage. His great-grandfather is Jose Tagle, the first Philippine revolutionary general to defeat Spanish colonial forces on the battlefield. His grandfather is John Jacob Gordon, a soldier who landed along with Admiral George Dewey’s invasion fleet. It’s in his blood not to stand down.
Assassins killed his father, James Gordon, the first mayor of Olongapo City, on February 20, 1967. The injustice led Gordon, then a marketing man for Procter & Gamble, to shift careers. “I was beginning to be embittered. I became a lawyer because I wanted to find out why these people get away with crime and how people were being brought out to jail to kill my father. There were three attempts on his life—all by escaped prisoners. My father was a crusader and a visionary. Very honest. Very hard-working. So was my mother. They inculcated the work ethic in us. When my father was being buried I thought of running for the constitutional convention,” he recalls.
The former dictator President Ferdinand E. Marcos booted him out along with the rest of the delegates of the 1971 Constitutional Convention. A 24-year-old law student then, he was its youngest member. Even then, he had big designs for Subic, proposing a free port patterned after Hong Kong and Singapore as the alternative to the US naval base.
President Corazon Aquino, upon taking office after the fall of Marcos, replaced serving local officials affiliated with the dictatorship with officers in charge, Gordon included. “Cory took out all the mayors, irrespective if you were doing a good job or not,” he recalls.
Deposed President Estrada, soon after his landslide election victory, replaced Gordon with his own appointee despite protests and blockades of SBMA employees. Some contend it was Gordon’s alleged refusal to let Estrada’s entourage campaign inside SBMA before the elections that incurred the President’s ire. Gordon denies such an event took place and instead remembers inadvertently embarrassing the President when he picked a cigarette butt Estrada had thrown to the ground and noted in his speech that they keep Olongapo clean.
Today, President Arroyo’s administration is on a collision course with Gordon after his committee decided to scrap the constituent assembly as a method of rewriting the Constitution. Charter change to effect a parliamentary government, one similar to Marcos’s scheme, is one of the President’s most urgent priorities.
Gordon has made a career out of political resurrections. His secret: “Get the job done. Keep your integrity intact. Enable and ennoble people. That’s been my fighting faith.”
A tough act to follow
Even with love, Gordon has not had it easy. He reminisces about the early days between his wife Katherine Esteban Howell and he. Like Gordon, she was also an Amerasian. But there were also differences that initially set the two apart. “We were neighbors, like Romeo and Juliet. They (our families) weren’t at war; they just felt we weren’t a good fit. Kate at the time wasn’t a Catholic, though she was raised in a Catholic school. Politically, they supported somebody else for governor. And my mom didn’t want me to get married early.” But as with everything, Gordon overcame. He married at 25.
Even with his children, he gets tough. “I’m a disciplinarian. I have no problems with them. You never see my children abuse my position. You’ll never see them riding in an official car, even when I’m in the car.” Except for his youngest son, Brian, who at 28 serves as councilor in Olongapo City, Gordon’s other children—Marnie, 35; Ali, 32; and LJ, 31—are not into politics.
Sen. Richard Gordon now loves spending his free time with his grandchildren. He often takes them along while he goes fishing for talakitok and barracuda at, where else, Subic. “We live simply. Nothing fancy.” Tough love it is, love it is nonetheless.