GORDON: Ready for Anything
He has faced down natural and man-made disasters, political adversaries, kidnap-for-ransom rebels, and economic crises. Now Senator Richard J. Gordon is facing the biggest challenge of his life – running for President of the Philippines.
By Lynda C. Corpuz
Moneysense Magazine Cover Story
If there’s one thing the ferocious flood brought by typhoon Ondoy proved is we’re not ready. Our national government wasn’t ready. The local government units in the affected areas were overwhelmed. And we were caught flatfooted. In the midst of lost and confused government officials, a brief television interview with a familiar face during emergency and disaster rescue operations offered assurance that at least someone knows what he’s doing.
Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon enumerated and displayed to the panning camera the manpower, equipment, and vehicles under the disposal of Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), of which he is chairman and CEO. It wasn’t a political ploy as some critics snidely remarked – he has been a volunteer since he was 17, as his parents were also active in the Red Cross, and his mother founded the Blood Bank – just Dick Gordon once again to the rescue.
“Sino nauuna kapag may delubyo? Mas marami pa kaming rubber boat sa Red Cross kesa sa Philippine Navy. Ang navy natin, all coast, no guard. Sino unang tinatawagan nila? Ako. Bakit ako? Because I will care. No matter where you are, I will look for you and care for you,” Sen. Gordon impassionedly narrates.
Disaster preparedness is a must. Sen. Gordon says we shouldn’t be stupid not to know that we’re expecting at least 20 typhoons a year. Then he pulled out his whistle and demonstrated how to be saved when disaster strikes. “Pag-pito ng tatlong beses (then he whistles), whether you like it or not, evacuate ka na. Hindi na ako magpapadala ng rubber boat. Whether it’s an earthquake, fire, or typhoon, dapat handa ka. Alam mo kung saan ang pinakamalapit na evacuation center sa inyo, dapat may dala kang basic necessities mo. Kung bahain ang lugar, dapat magpagawa ka ng elevated na kalsada, na bahay. You should adapt to disasters,” Sen. Gordon stresses.
To disaster proof the Philippines that’s in the typhoon- and earthquake-belt, Sen. Gordon says we should have a culture of cleanliness – from clearing the drainages to relocating squatters. National management of agriculture is another, opting to have our agricultural lands in locations less hit by typhoons, like in most parts of Mindanao, or review the engineering involved in our agricultural bases, like Northern and Central Luzon.
No one questions his exemplary track record as a volunteer in disaster rescue operations (see sidebar “A Volunteer Forever”). No one also doubts him as an effective leader, crisis manager, and man of action.
Cleaning up Olongapo
Before becoming a senator, Sen. Gordon led his hometown, Olongapo City, where he served as mayor for 13 years. From the grand vision to the minute details, then Mayor Gordon introduced systems to steer away Olongapo from its image of “sin city” to “model city.”
Before color coding became a traffic rule in Metro Manila, Mayor Gordon had color-coded jeepneys, plying specific routes within the city. The drivers sported uniforms, bearing their names and contact details – a rule ensuring that in an untoward incident, passengers would know their driver’s name and where to find him. “Ang driver hindi na siya mahihingan ng pulis, kasi dati colorum siya. Sabi namin, lahat ng jeepney at tricycle may route-bearing capacity. I did this without a law. I had to motivate people [to agree with me],” he cites.
While his initiative was initially met with protest, then Mayor Gordon proved that the traffic system was beneficial. Regularizing the licensed jeepneys and tricycles per route ensured a steady income for the drivers and operators. If the driver overcharges, the passenger could look after the driver’s record filed at the city hall – with the latter’s photo and contact details. “The jeepney could no longer be used for crime. The license could no longer be used for corruption. Locals and tourists knew [already] which colored jeepney to ride [depending on their destination],” Sen. Gordon says over the benefits of his instituted system.
And his becoming a mayor with his own brand of leadership and management style was something he learned from his father, James L. Gordon – who chose to become a Filipino, and hailed as the founding father of Olongapo as its first elected municipal mayor. “My father’s assassin (assassinated on February 20, 1967) rode a jeep, got off, and rode a tricycle and escaped. Mabuti na lang may nakakita kung saan huminto `yung tricycle. Ngayon, hindi na makapupunta `yung tricycle sa kung saan hindi niya dapat puntahan. Mahuhuli siya. That’s how I learned to do it. I also learned it from the color-coded, route signages of trains in Japan,” he shares.
“The Americans, who a number of them got robbed, thanked me for the system. The curfew was lifted and the people of Olongapo were thankful,” Sen. Gordon shares the inspiration behind the orderly traffic system in his bailiwick. He also instituted system among hawkers, wearing uniforms and I.D. and cleaning the area where they’re posted. He also purchased second-hand trucks to ensure timely garbage collection and proper disposal, collected by uniformed “sanitary technicians.” He also spearheaded public markets’ expansion, community organizations, among other development programs. “I came from a town where my father was assassinated. Where there were robbers and troubles abound. Na-organize ko lahat. Naayos ko lahat `yun,” he prides.
Building the “second city”
His leadership and management style was also met initially with resistance. He can be very demanding and brutally frank, and most Filipinos, being generally non-confrontational, get taken aback. But Sen. Richard “Dick” Gordon says if he doesn’t call your attention over a misdoing – “hindi ka na niya mahal `pag ganoon.”
He speaks plainly and doesn’t mince words. Basically with him, what you see is what you get. “Kung baga, kailangan natin gawin ito. You have to earn my respect. And I won’t let you forget it. Kapag kinagagalitan kita, mahal pa kita. `Pag hindi na kita kinakausap, wala ka na sa akin,” Sen. Gordon explains.
But the volunteers who Sen. Gordon mobilized to help rebuild Olongapo and Subic after the U.S. bases left in 1992 didn’t see him as abrasive. They only saw a passionate man who made Subic Bay as proof of economic progress.
Sen. Gordon asserted that he was helping Olongapo people to have a better picture of themselves. “I’m drawing a picture of who you are. You must be this way. You must think of yourself as somebody honorable and with dignity. My slogan, ‘Aim High Olongapo’ was realized. Bawal ang tamad sa Olongapo. Lalong bawal ang tanga sa Olongapo, alam nila `yan. I met with them. Hindi ko sila bine-baby. I told them, ‘if this doesn’t work, you can sue me or you don’t vote for me the next time,’” Sen. Gordon stresses. Talk about tough love.
“I helped built self-help, self-reliance among them. Bawal din ang palaasa sa gobyerno. We were taking care of ourselves. In my first speech, I told them that we would build a ‘second city,’ and that was Subic. [I envisioned] that since the bases would someday be gone and that happened. Twelve years later, I built that ‘second city,’ – Subic Bay,” Sen. Gordon introduces his ascent to become the founding chairman and administrator of Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), a post he held from 1992 to 1998.
Sen. Gordon led a nationwide rally in September 1991 for the U.S. bases to be retained. He cites that the bill was filed in the Lower House by his wife, but it was not even discussed. That made Olongapo’s future in jeopardy as they were heavily relying on the U.S. naval base.
The cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991 dumped not only wet ash on Olongapo, but also caused damage to their livelihood, properties, and morale. Despite such, the Philippine Senate voted 12-11 to reject the bases’ extension. “Marami kaming pinagdaanan ng mga taga-Olongapo. Maski noong inalis ako ni Cory (Aquino, following a government reorganization), pinaglaban nila ako. Lagi kong sinasama ang tao. We made Olongapo a city of rights and duties. I was the first mayor in the country helping other mayors. Nasanay ang tao. You have to practice citizenship,” he stresses.
“We put the Subic Freeport idea in the bill – wala `yun doon. When Subic was turned over to us, giba ang Olongapo. Nilinis namin `yun. Binalik namin sa normal ang Olongapo. We went through natural disasters and government corruption and [some men’s] selfishness. Pag-alis ng bases, kinaya namin. We attracted foreign investors. We built infrastructure. We created 100,000 jobs. We made the impossible,” Sen. Gordon illustrates how he and the Olongapo people bonded together in time of crises.
The transformation of Subic Bay earned the admiration and commendation of world leaders like U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad – along with the other leaders that attended the Asia Pacific Economic Conference held in Subic in 1996. “A slice of what they can be” is how Sen. Gordon sees the efforts he put in to make Olongapo and Subic Bay models to emulate.
Sen. Gordon also has a knack for catchy slogans and is marketing savvy. Credit that partly to his first job as brand manager for Procter & Gamble. “That was an important job that could have given me a career in business. That was the best job in the world at that time. Mahirap makapasok doon. Sa klase namin, dalawa lang kaming nakapasok through our academic [record], leadership [potential], and personality. Walang lakaran. But I had to leave since my father was assassinated,” Sen. Gordon recalls.
That tragic event became the catalyst to his political career. Although he comes from a family of politicians (his mother, Amelia J. Gordon, is hailed as the first elected city mayor of Olongapo and the 2003 Pearl S. Buck Woman of the Year honoree), he didn’t set out to be a politician.
After his mother won the elections, Sen. Gordon entered the University of the Philippines-Diliman to take up Law. “There were three attempts on my father’s life, I couldn’t understand why. Then he was assassinated. I went to law school to know bakit hindi ma-solve-solve ang kaso ng father ko. Kung sino ang mastermind,” he asked then.
After elected as the No. 1 student councilor, former President Ferdinand Marcos asked Sen. Gordon to run as Student Council chairman. The events at that time were leading to the First Quarter Storm. He refused Marcos’ offer. “I told Marcos, ‘don’t call me again.’ He was my brod (brother) in U.P. Upsilon Sigma Phi. He asked me why I didn’t want to run. I said, ‘I’m running for the Constitutional Convention (ConCon in 1971),” Sen. Gordon cites the third event that led him to the mayorship of Olongapo City.
Running for the ConCon was a challenge for Sen. Gordon – his father was only mayor for three years; his mother didn’t want him to run, as she wanted him to finish Law, not to mention that they were not in speaking terms since he eloped and got married to Kate (the 1998 UNESCO Mayors for Peace Prize honoree in Asia, three-term Olongapo City Mayor, and Zambales Representative from 1987 to 1995).
Despite that, he pushed forward. “I said [to those asking why I was running considering my age and inexperience], ‘kung bibili kayo ng kalabaw, ano pipiliin ninyo, bata o matanda?’ Simple lang. Magaling ako magsalita, that’s why I went out and spoke to the public through the theaters owned by my mother and mother-in-law. We got three comedians to attract crowd. `Pag naparami na nila, saka ako pupunta at magsasalita. Hahabulin ko `yan from barrio to barrio to speak. I won, the No.1, and the youngest delegate to the ConCon,” Sen. Gordon prides of his first, major political achievement.
He says he ran for the ConCon because he wanted to change the country, and says his inspiration for this was Wenceslao Vinzons – the youngest delegate and signer of the 1935 Constitution. That was why he also joined Upsilon because of Vinzons, not because of Marcos or Ninoy (Aquino, Jr.), his fellow Upsilonians. “Like my father, Vinzons had a vision. Like Vinzons, I told myself, ‘I’ll be the youngest delegate to the ConCon. I’ll make my father proud of me,” Sen. Gordon cites, and adds that one of his most precious possessions is his picture of him, administering the Oath of Office to Diosdado Macapagal as president of ConCon. “Whenever I take my oath, I’m taking my oath to the youth of the land so they would have a better future,” Sen. Gordon cites.
He has certainly come a long way from being a wunderkind to a highly accomplished public servant. After his stint at the SBMA, unceremoniously kicked out by then President Joseph Estrada with whom he had a political rift, he came back as tourism secretary appointed in 2001 and served until 2004, before being elected as a senator. He enjoyed a high-profile and successful job as tourism secretary, having launched the highly successful WOW! Philippines campaign. He rebuilt Intramuros and made it a world-city of museums, with themed fiestas showcasing the products and specialties of the country. He didn’t only put back the Philippines in the tourism belt, but Sen. Gordon says he also created jobs in the hospitality and allied sectors.
“Do you hear [those things I did?] No, you don’t. Even if I say them, sasabihin, hindi mananalo `yan [Gordon] kasi wala siyang pera. That’s where their mistake lies. And their ignorance,” Sen. Gordon points out.
Running for President
His frustration over the press is understandable. He is already being counted out when he hasn’t even officially announced that he’s running. As of this writing, he has not officially declared his bid for the 2010 presidential race. Sen. Gordon says he keeps it as a “surprise” as his ace. “I don’t participate in surveys. SWS put my name in violation of my rights because I have my name. For this year, I never allowed to put my name in it. If it put in P321 million in four to five months; P100 million allotted for the surveys, I would top them. If I start advertising, I would rate. You’re right, I don’t rate even with my record – I don’t rate because I don’t fool the people. `Yung naipon kong kaunti, para sa pamilya ko `yan, hindi para sa pulitika `yan,” Sen. Gordon stresses.
He doesn’t kowtow to the masses, doesn’t pander to oligarchs, and doesn’t kiss butts. All he can offer is his record. He laments that candidates with nothing much to show in terms of performance are being hailed as the most winnable ones. He, on the other hand, has already done much, much more. “Nagawa ko na lahat `yan. Kung wala akong chance, kung wala akong pera, eh `di lalo na `yung mahihirap. Pupunta na lang sila abroad. It’s only the crooked politicians who are making money. Did I let my people leave Olongapo? I found a future for them.”
Sen. Gordon is also very specific as to what should be done for this country. He believes the key to transforming the Philippines is education. He envisions giving Filipino school children a very good teacher, feeding them, and providing access to good facilities. In fact, he already has a plan: generate a form of tax from text (SMS and MMS) messaging. “Stick to the vision. Set aside 10 centavos out of every text messages. And if there are two million text messages sent a day, that’s P73 billion a year. Right away, you can pay all the teachers. But build schools first. Create a corporation for a Health, Education, and Acceleration Program for this purpose. Also assign a doctor rotating around the schools so the kids can have access to health care,” Sen. Gordon explains.
Indeed, he is the man with the plan and a man of action. “You can demand from me,” he asserts. Yes, he banks on his record, and if he appears to have to remind people about it, Sen. Gordon only shows that he has got what it takes to lead this country. “I never run away from a fight. Never. What I’m offering is an experience of a lifetime,” he ends.
Photography by Carl Valentin
Hair and make-up styling by Chastine Isidro Fitcher (of Essensuals Toni&Guy)
Cover and editorial shoot and interview coordinated by Edlen Vanezza Bayaton