Much has been said about a number of newly-elected mayors who have shown zeal for service and dedication in performing their role as local chief executives. Before today’s “rock star” mayors, however, there were a number of mayors who transformed their cities and defined how it is to be a true leader. These legendary mayors continue to serve as examples of what it takes to be an effective local leader.
Part of the list of unforgettable mayors are Arsenio Lacson, Cesar Climaco, Jesse Robredo, and Bayani Fernando. Get to know them here.
Arsenio H. Lacson
Manila Mayor, 1952-1962
Often referred to as the “best President the Philippines never had,” Arsenio Lacson often tops the list of Filipino mayors who left an indelible mark in history.
Lacson first made a name for himself as a post-World War II lawyer and journalist before embarking on a career in politics. Lacson the columnist and radio personality was fiery, fearless, and passionate. He openly opposed the Bell Trade Act, which was being pushed by the United States in order for Americans to have the same rights as Filipinos to exploit the Philippines’ resources. Even Congress and Malacañang were not able to escape Lacson’s scrutiny. He described majority lawmakers as having either a mind or a backbone. He took swipes at President Manuel Roxas for failing to stand up to the Americans. In time, Lacson’s hard-hitting style and penchant for profanities earned him the nickname “Arsenic,” from the poisonous element of the same name.
In 1949, Lacson was elected congressman of the second district of Manila. He quickly became a prominent opposition figure, even earning the distinction of being one of the period’s ten outstanding legislators, as selected by a group of journalists. Among others, he pushed for an independent foreign policy and supported the claim to Sabah, as well as spoke up against corruption in government.
Two years into his term as congressman, Lacson ran and won as Manila’s first elected city mayor. He took on the unenviable task of rebuilding Manila, which had been ravaged during the war. He served for three terms, spanning ten years—1952-1962. During his incumbency, Lacson erased the city’s huge debt, rid the city of criminality, stopped corruption, and instituted various reforms. In the second half of his stint as mayor, Lacson embarked on a number of projects which would later become part of his legacy to Manila. These include the Manila Zoo, Ospital ng Maynila, and Quiapo underpass, the country’s first underpass.
His unconventional ways endeared Lacson to the public, and his unprecedented success made him a national figure. Lacson was widely regarded as the most logical Nacionalista Party presidential candidate in the 1965 elections. Fate, however, intervened, as Lacson died of a heart attack in 1962. He was only 49.
Cesar C. Climaco
Zamboanga City Mayor, 1953-1961, 1980-1984
Just as Arsenic Lacson was starting to rock the political scene in Manila, another irreverent young politician was causing quite a stir in Zamboanga City.
Cesar Cortes Climaco, a Manilaeducated lawyer, had been elected as city councilor in 1951, after which he was appointed as city mayor in 1953. He became Zamboanga City’s first elected mayor in 1956, and was reelected for another term in 1959. Climaco became known for his adherence to good governance and his tough stance against crime. He confronted hoodlums and ensured peace among different groups in the city. He strictly implemented ordinances and made sure police and civilian officials did their job well. Under Climaco’s leadership, the city’s income rose considerably, and new infrastructure and housing projects were undertaken.
The city’s residents welcomed Climaco’s unconventional style, and Filipinos elsewhere took notice. He also became friends with Lacson, and became known as the “Arsenio Lacson of the South.”
When President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, Climaco went to the US and vowed not to cut his hair until martial law was lifted. He spoke up against Marcos and asserted that Martial Law was being used by the government to rob the people of their basic rights and liberties.
After a number of failed attempts at being part of the national legislature, Climaco made a successful political comeback in 1980. As mayor once again, Climaco carried on with his old ways as the fighting mayor of Zamaboanga. He criticized Marcos, the police, and the military for their failure to solve mounting criminality not only in the city but the whole country as well. His disdain for the administration intensified even more after the assassination of his friend Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983. This also cemented the then-prevailing anti-Marcos sentiment in the city.
In May 1984, Climaco handily beat two formidable politicians—one of them backed by Malacañang—in the election for a seat in the Batasang Pambansa. He chose to wait until his term as mayor was over before taking his seat. This, however, did not materialize as Climaco was killed by an assassin on November 14, 1984.
Bayani F. Fernando
Marikina City Mayor, 1992-2001
When Bayani “BF” Flores Fernando ran for vice president in 2004, not many people were surprised. He had, after all, been known as the man who transformed the country’s Shoe Capital from a sleepy town to a model city. His running mate, former Olongapo City Mayor Richard Gordon, declared: “BF is a great mayor of Marikina, may character talaga (he really has character). We are the most experienced, we have the vision, we have the ability to transform the nation.”
Fernando did not get elected as vice president, but this does not take away anything from his legacy in Marikina.
When he became mayor in 1992, Fernando launched major projects to save the Marikina River and to erase Marikina’s image as a hideout of rapists and drug addicts. The “Save the Marikina River” project was instrumental, among others, in convincing 10,000 informal settlers to leave their communities in the riverbanks and live in relocation sites within the city. This not only helped lessen pollution, but also moved the residents out of harm’s way, as the river would always overflow during the rainy season. Meanwhile, the “Rescue 161” project was institutionalized to provide quick response to any emergency or disturbance needing action by the police, medical personnel, or firefighting teams.
Often compared to Lee Kwan Yew during his incumbency as Marikina mayor, Fernando was a disciplinarian. He made sure that the public market remained clean, and that motorists and commuters alike abided by traffic rules and regulations. He banned loitering, going around shirtless in public places, and selling in sidewalks. While these were initially met with resistance, the people soon realized that having pedestrian friendly sidewalks and hassle-free roads was part of the city’s transformation into a more livable community.
Fernando’s programs received recognition from various government agencies and nongovernment organizations. To this day, these are often cited as model projects for ensuring community discipline and good local governance.
After his third term as mayor, Fernando was appointed as chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), paving the way for him to implement some of his projects on a wider scale.
Fernando was elected as congressman of the First District of Marikina in 2016 and reelected earlier this year.
Jesse M. Robredo
Naga City Mayor, 1988-1998, 2001-2010
Humility and his commitment to good governance made Jesse Manalastas Robredo a household name. He was known for “tsinelas leadership,” his brand of leadership based, among others, on maintaining ties with the masses and willingness to do even menial tasks. For him, wearing tsinelas (flip-flops) was not only a matter of comfort, but of accessibility: it signified his being one with the people, that no barriers existed between them and their mayor.
Robredo was first elected mayor of Naga City in 1988. He launched various projects that sought to address the city’s various problems, such as economic stagnation, traffic congestion, proliferation of illegal settlers, gambling, and organized crime. In time, he was able to transform Naga from a third-class city to a first-class business-friendly and livable city marked by low poverty and unemployment levels, and high literacy and sanitation levels.
Robredo was a champion of integrity, professionalism, transparency, people empowerment, and good governance. One of his trailblazing projects established the Naga City People’s Council, which institutionalized citizens’ participation in development planning, as well as set in place a system for transparency and accountability.
Under Robredo, Naga became a showcase of good governance. The city received local and international awards for its programs. Robredo himself gained recognition, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2000.
Robredo was quick to deflect credit to others. He described his role as the one responsible for coming up with an idea and making the Nagueños realize that they had a role in the programs he wanted to implement, the services he wanted to improve, and the issues he wanted to address. The people became his active partners, the ones who kept his programs going.
After his third term in 1998, Robredo chose to take a break from politics, choosing instead to pursue post-graduate studies in Public Administration. He easily made a comeback in 2001, after which he was reelected for two consecutive terms.
Being appointed as secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) in 2010 paved the way for Robredo to implement some of his previous projects on a national scale. He did not have much time to serve at a national level, though. He perished in a plane crash on August 2012. — GODFREY T. DANCEL