Go big or go home. This best describes Congressman Juan Fidel Nograles’ campaign in the 2019 midterm elections.
In his first foray into politics, the 32-year-old fearlessly challenged the Rodriguezes, a clan that had been in power in Rizal for two decades. His was a resounding victory: with a 70,000-vote winning margin, Nograles ushered in a new era in the history of his district. This is how the young politician wants to be remembered by his constituents.
“I want to be remembered as someone who defeated a dynasty because of the people’s desire for change. They need someone to represent them in Congress, someone who can champion the rights of the marginalized, the poor, and the impoverished,” says Nograles.
Fortunately, Nograles has the next three years—a total of nine years, if he will be given the chance—to prove himself as the champion the people of Rizal need.
As a lawyer providing pro bono legal services to the marginalized citizens of Rodriguez, Nograles has made his way into the hearts of many. With the help of his law students and fellow lawyers, he took on various cases, but paid special attention to those involving land grabbing, family disputes, and domestic violence.
As a former Supreme Court lawyer, I have faith in the rule of law. Because I believe that no one should be above the law.
“My advocacy is legal aid. As a lawyer, it is one of our responsibilities to aid the marginalized, the impoverished. [We have] to assist them in legal proceedings because social justice dictates [that] those who have less in life should have more in law,” says the Harvard law graduate.
After earning a Juris Doctor degree at the Ateneo de Manila University, Nograles went to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study in one of the most prestigious schools in the world— Harvard Law School.
Nograles admits that his time in the Ivy League school was no walk in the park. For starters, aside from having to compete with other brilliant minds, he also had to pay a particularly hefty tuition fee. All seriousness aside, Nograles joked that one also has to be “handsome” in order to get in.
While it was difficult to get into the school, it was his time inside that made him realize that he wanted to enter politics. Instead of going back to being a full-time lawyer, Nograles decided that he wanted to use what he learned to ensure “good governance, anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability” in the local government of Rizal.
When he returned to the Philippines after graduating in 2016, he started to serve the Province of Rizal as the assistant provincial administrator, a position he held until he filed his certificate of candidacy for this year’s elections.
Prior to Harvard, Nograles worked in the Office of the President of the Philippines as an assistant secretary and was also a court attorney in the Supreme Court, under then Supreme Court Justice Martin Villarama Jr. His first-hand experience at the highest court of the land only deepened his trust in the Philippine legal system. “As a former Supreme Court lawyer, I have faith in the rule of law. Because I believe that no one should be above the law,” he quips.
The law has a very particular place in the hearts of the Nograles family. Both of Fidel’s parents, George and Sol, are lawyers. Their namesake law firm, Nograles Law Firm, mostly focuses on labor law and litigation.
Aside from his parents, his elder sister is also a lawyer.
Surrounded by lawyers, Fidel felt that becoming one was the “natural career path” for him. He thought of becoming a doctor at first and took up BS Biology before shifting to Management Economics. As a lawyer, Nograles admits he is an idealist. “As an idealist and an advocate of the rule of law and human rights, I believe that we should do our part in society to protect human rights and to improve access to justice for the poor,” Fidel says.
Aside from being a practicing lawyer, Nograles is also a law professor. For him, juggling all of his duties and responsibilities is difficult because “24 hours a day is not enough to fulfill different roles.” But time management makes it possible.
As a professor, he always tells his students that “grades are not the only measure of your excellence in school because education is not limited to the four walls of the classroom.” Nograles always emphasizes that interacting with other people and building relationships are just as important as maintaining a grade.
“At the end of the day, what you get on your report card or on your final exams, they’re not enough to define your character,” Nograles stresses.
STILL WATER RUNS DEEP
Upon meeting the young congressman, one could easily sense that beneath his quiet demeanor lies a deep sense of obligation to the people he serves. Despite answering in short sentences, his carefully chosen words relay his passion and conviction in giving the people what they deserve.
“Seeing the poverty, the inequality and living conditions of the people here in the province is an inspiration because I have an obligation to uplift their quality of life,” he says. “I am responsible for almost 1 million people living in the 2nd District of Rizal and that, in itself, is a big motivation for me to do what is needed, to serve these people.”
One of his biggest concerns is the size of the 2nd District of Rizal, which comprises the municipalities of Baras, Cardona, Jala-jala, Morong, Pililla, San Mateo, Teresa, Tanay, and Rodriguez (formerly Montalban). In terms of land area, it is the biggest legislative district in Rizal. Nograles confesses that during the campaign, traveling around the nine non- contiguous towns was a challenge since the district has mountains, islands, and rivers.
With this in mind, one of his plans once he enters Congress is to divide the 2nd District for the towns to get “advanced access to government services and public funds.” Apart from resolving the other concerns that face his district, Nograles wishes to focus on education, health, and livelihood.
“[I will] put my constituents at the forefront of everything and strive to respond to the needs of the community,” he assures.
Seeing the poverty, the inequality and living conditions of the people here in the province is an inspiration because I have an obligation to uplift their quality of life.
OF NUMBERS AND NAMES
This year’s elections resulted in the end of many dynasties, and at the forefront of these battles were the likes of Fidel Nograles. While many people fixate on the budding politician’s age, Nograles is confident that not only is age just a number, but it could also be advantageous.
For him, what young leaders can offer better than their older predecessors can be summarized in three words: fresh ideas and creativity. In other words, they bring about change that their former leaders could not provide enough of. Nograles also believes that change must come from within. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” he says, quoting his source of inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi.
Apart from his age, another thing that caught the electorate’s attention is his last name. As a newcomer to the political arena, Fidel had to make a name for himself—one that isn’t preceded by reputation. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Prospero Nograles is his uncle and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles is his cousin. “I always tell my constituents that I want to be voted not because of my name or who I am, but because of what I can do and how I can uplift the living conditions of the people living here in Rizal,” Fidel shares.
Whether it is because of his name, his age, his advocacy, or some other reason, the people of the 2nd District of Rizal definitely paid attention to Fidel Nograles and have given him the chance to lead them. For this, Nograles is eternally grateful.
“Makakaasa po kayo na hindi n’yo po sinayang ang inyong boto. Sapagkat, nandito na po ang pagbabago. Panahon na po para kabataan naman ang mamuno, kabataan naman ang mabigyan ng pagkakataon na maglingkod bilang inyong kinatawan dito po sa Rizal. Salamat po sa inyong tiwala at suporta, (Rest assured, you did not waste your vote [on me] because change is here. It is time for the youth to lead, to be given a chance to serve as your representative here in Rizal. Thank you for your trust and support,)” he says.
The next three years will definitely not be easy for the first-time legislator. But if his astonishing win in his first run is a sign of things to come, then Congressman Fidel Nograles has a bright future ahead. After all, they say timing rarely favored those who were ready. Timing favors those who try. — HELEN HERNANE