April 2007
Faces of change / Changeless places

Isabela’s non-dynasty detour

DYNASTY SLAYER. Grace Padaca has since realized that winning against Faustino Dy Jr. in 2004 was the easiest part of being Isabela governor. [photo by Isa Lorenzo

ILAGAN, ISABELA — When Maria Gracia Cielo ‘Grace’ Padaca was proclaimed governor of the northeastern province of Isabela in 2004 after a hotly contested election, she knew that an even tougher battle awaited her.

Padaca has been hailed by local and international media as a hero and a giant slayer, for defeating then Governor Faustino Dy Jr. and wresting the post that various members of the Dy family had monopolized for 34 years. Her supporters have since said that she has made a good beginning by opening up democratic space, granting unprecedented access to her constituents, and instituting programs that benefit many Isabelinos.

Yet for Padaca, the transition from dynasty to democracy has been an uphill struggle. She inherited a bureaucracy mired in patronage politics and which owed a hefty debt. Also, the lack of cooperation from many of Isabela’s mayors would also hinder the province’s growth; Padaca has been unable to convene provincial bodies such as the school board, the health board, and the peace and order council. And despite her best efforts, perennial problems like jueteng and illegal logging still persist.

Whether or not Padaca’s performance is up to par will be judged by Isabelinos as they flock to the polls this May. Up against the 43-year-old Padaca for the gubernatorial post is former governor Benjamin Dy, 54. Two other Dy brothers, Caesar and Napoleon, are gunning to be re-elected as mayors of the towns of Cauayan and Alicia, respectively.

Padaca believes that her 14 years as a radio commentator on dzNC Bombo Radyo were instrumental in securing her victory in 2004. As host of Sa Totoo Lang and Bombo Hanay Bigtime, she wrote and broadcast five-minute editorials every day.

“Unlike a showbiz personality or basketball player who gets elected because of mere popularity, I am associated with issues on justice, good government, truth (and) freedom,” she notes.

“And the thing is,” she adds, “I did not conduct myself in such a way because I will run [in] elections later.” By the year 2000, Padaca had become assistant station manager of Bombo Radyo. Yet she soon decided to resign. As she explains it, “I had had it. Even if I kept on talking and talking on air, the people of the dynasty (continued) to be elected.”

She says it was bad enough that the Dys had a monopoly on power; the farmers, says Padaca, also failed to prosper during their reign. But although she had much to say about the Dys, she didn’t challenge the clan at the polls right away. She worked as a state auditor for the Commission on Audit until 2001, when she faced off with Faustino Dy III for Isabela’s third-district seat in Congress. When Dy was declared the winner, Padaca filed a protest with the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET). It ruled in Dy’s favor, yet Padaca says that her protest ensured that Isabelinos still remembered what had happened when the 2004 elections came around.

Many residents in fact say that they voted for her because they wanted a change of leadership. But Padaca herself says that she never expected that she would become governor. “(It’s) such a big shift,” she says. “I am a person who was physically handicapped since the age of three. So even though we were poor, I was used to being taken care of. Now, I have to take care of 1.4 million people. That was the hardest shift for me.”

Location map of Isabela courtesy of Wikipedia

ISABELA, ABOUT 10 hours away by bus from Manila, is known as the queen province of the north. The second largest province in the Philippines, it is one of the country’s biggest producers of rice and corn. For decades, however, it had been known more for being the bastion of the Dy clan (see box), and for rampant illegal logging.

In her 2007 State of the Province Address (SOPA), Padaca admitted that during her first days, she was too overwhelmed by the things that she had to do.

Early on, she learned that everyone wanted a piece of her. After her first few months as a governor, she began to dread being invited to parties as a guest of honor, because people would use the opportunity to tell her about their problems. Even the simple act of saying good morning took on new meaning. She says she feels guilty because she doesn’t have enough time to exchange greetings with the people who flock to the provincial capitol. “The moment that your eyes focus on them,” she says, “they will use that opportunity to bombard you with resolutions and requests.”


Cauayan mayor 1965-69
Governor 1969-86, 1987-1992
Governor 1992-2001
Governor 2001-2004
Cauayan mayor 1999-2001
Representative, 2nd district, 2001-present
Cauayan mayor, 2001-present
Alicia mayor, 2001-present

Padaca had made it a point to open up the capitol to ordinary Isabelinos, since previous administrations had been hospitable only to mayors and other politicos. To deal with the sudden flood of people, Padaca set aside each Wednesday of the week to hold an Ugnayang Bayan (province discussion), where she listens to her constituents, and receives their requests. But she has come up with a system of her own to handle all the things on the wishlists of Isabelinos.

During a recent ugnayang bayan, plastic folders are piled high on the table before Padaca. It is mid-afternoon, and there is only a small clump of people left sitting on the plastic chairs before her. Padaca, who usually is in crutches, is in a wheelchair, having hurt her foot in an accident.

She calls the waiting people by barangay, releases checks, and asks for written proposal from those who have come to ask for funds. When the officials of one barangay ask for money for a new community center, she tells them that when it comes to infrastructure, farm to market roads are her priority.

[photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Midway through the ugnayang bayan, she calls for a laptop to review data. As she releases each check, she takes a picture with its recipient.

Some of her constituents have been grumbling over this meticulous system, says Father Antonio Ancheta, the director of the Social Action Center in Isabela: “That’s why they’ve been saying that it seems the capitol has become a university (with all that scrutiny). But it’s right to study things, instead of simply saying yes to it.”

FOR SURE the Dys do have something to show for their long reign in Isabela. Much of the infrastructure in the province is credited to the different Dys who have held power here. At least four hospitals were built by the Dys, as well as roads and schools. When Padaca assumed the governorship, however, she discovered that previous administrations owed more than P700 million to local banks, contractors, suppliers, and local government units for financing unfinished infrastructure projects such as roads and classrooms. Even the four hospitals constructed under the Dy administrations were reportedly all still incomplete.

During the first year of her term, Padaca saved money to pay the provincial government’s creditors. Fourteen percent of the province’s internal revenue allotment, or P130 million, was automatically deducted to pay off the bank loans. In her SOPA, she said that the provincial government had managed to pay over 60 percent of its debt.

Former Ilagan mayor Mercedes Uy says that Padaca is careful about disbursing money. “When it comes to fiscal matters, the money is safe (with her).”

PADACA sets aside each Wednesday of the week to hold an Ugnayang Bayan where she listens to her constituents, and receives their requests. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Padaca may be close to paying off the province’s debt, but she says that she is most proud of the fact that during her term, she was able to focus on Isabela’s farmers, who constitute 60 percent of the overall population.

The governor invited traders from other provinces to look at Isabela’s produce. She also used provincial funds in order to subsidize the buying program of the National Food Administration, in order to increase the selling prices of rice and corn by P1 per kilo. In addition, the provincial government has undertaken ventures such as small water-impounding projects, farm-to-market roads, and multipurpose pavements that can be used to dry crops.

But while all that has pleased Isabela’s farmers, other Padaca initiatives have not been as welcome. For instance, instead of continuing her predecessor’s health program, which promised free medicine and full coverage in the event of sickness, Padaca replaced it with a PhilHealth program that subsidized the hospital expenses of cardholders and their family members.

Some residents, especially senior citizens, are unhappy that they no longer receive free medicine, but others point out that the medicine remains affordable. Padaca herself says that the previous administration’s health program was not sustainable.

She also says that when she became governor, she encountered a “culture among the people in the capitol of not being good stewards of government property, and also of making every transaction a way to benefit themselves first before the people.”

Moreover, she found herself up against Dy loyalists who proved uncooperative. At least that’s how she tells it; soon after she was elected into office, Padaca put eight division chiefs on floating status, because she said these were loyal to the Dys, and prevented her administration from implementing its programs. The Civil Service Commission, however, ordered that seven of the eight employees be reinstated. The eighth resigned.

Local chief executives also apparently began working against her. Says Father Ancheta: “I think most of the mayors are still loyalists of the past administration.”

Of the mayoral candidates who supported Padaca in the 2001 elections, only three were elected. None of the incumbent mayors supported her. Padaca says that their support during her campaign was irrelevant, as far as she was concerned. Still, says Father Ancheta, Padaca could have done a better job in winning over the mayors of Isabela’s 35 towns and one city. But instead of forging partnerships at the municipal level, Padaca has gone directly to the barangays. Provincial board member Jesus Cruz Jr. also complains that Padaca does not implement any of the resolutions that the provincial board has passed.

Padaca is proud of the fact that during her term, she was able to focus on Isabela’s farmers, who constitute 60 percent of the province’s total population. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

GAMU MAYOR Fernando Cumigad was one of the mayoral candidates who supported Padaca back in 2001. Now he says their personal relationship has soured. “But this is purely on issues of priorities and probably on concerns on how to handle things, which is her prerogative,” he says. “It did not jibe with my way of running my municipal government.”

Cumigad believes that in order to govern, “you have to get or solicit the respect or support of your constituents, particularly your lieutenants, the people below you. Because you cannot be an effective agent of change alone, because Isabela is a very big province.”

Padaca says that winning over the mayors simply wasn’t her priority. “I cannot focus all my efforts or pour all my energy into trying to unite, or reconcile with people who may take years in order to soften up,” she argues. “And what good will it do anyway? It’s not the best way for me to be able to serve people.”

In previous administrations, the mayors and barangay officials had gotten used to accosting the governor and having their requests and resolution immediately approved, Padaca adds. Even ex-mayor Uy says Padaca’s main rival this May, Benjamin Dy, who was governor from 1992 to 2001, was too accommodating. “You could call him up, disturb him even if he is sleeping, you can drag him if necessary,” she recalls. “There was no such thing as ‘schedules’ with him. In fairness, he accomplished a lot of projects. That’s why he’s still quite popular with the people here.”

Alicia Mayor Napoleon Dy says that Padaca has not “accepted” the mayors, noting that none of them can speak to her without an appointment.

The continued friction between Padaca and some of her mayors has hindered Isabela’s growth. Some of the mayors, for example, have not remitted their real property taxes or RPT, saying that the provincial government does not return the funds to them. In 2005, the non-remittance of real property and special education taxes reached more than P26 million. Dy says that he uses the RPT to fund the salaries of provincial school board teachers that Padaca has left unpaid.

Padaca counters that the mayors have no right to dictate how the funds should be used, and that the provincial government continued to pay for the teachers’ salaries. She has thought about suing the mayors who refused to pay their taxes, but she says that she has been too busy to do so. Some mayors began to remit their RPT after the provincial government signed a commitment with the municipal treasurers that stated the real property taxes that they had collected from each town. But holdouts like Dy and Cumigad remain.

A few mayors “have this mistaken notion that if they come to me, they cannot get anything,” says Padaca. “But they’re not trying.” She adds that she has given projects to some Dy allies, and even to the Dy brothers.

Cumigad himself says that even though he does not have a good personal relationship with the governor, Padaca has not tried to stop national agencies from assisting his town. Former governors would block projects if the mayor did not belong to their party, he adds.

Under Padaca’s term, “we were able to prove that there is democracy in Isabela,” says Cumigad. He points out that everyone — from media to other politicians — are free to say what they want about the governor, without fear of retribution.

THE PRESENCE of democratic space, however, means that rumors saying that Padaca has done nothing for Isabela crop up every so often. Another persistent rumor is that her brother is receiving payoffs from jueteng, something that Padaca firmly dismisses as gossip.

Padaca is one of jueteng‘s most outspoken critics. “In my inaugural address, I said ayoko ng jueteng (I don’t like jueteng), but some people interpreted it as saying, the next day, jueteng will stop. But it’s more complicated than that.” She says that even if she is staunchly against it, the police have done nothing to stop it, while the mayors continued to support it.

JUETENG, along with illegal logging, is a pernicious problem that Isabela has failed to lick. However, Padaca believes that jueteng operators make less profit now because she is the governor. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

In 2005, Padaca met with Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, other Catholic clergy and then Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Angelo Reyes to discuss jueteng. After the meeting, she made headlines by announcing that mayors and policemen in Isabela were among the beneficiaries of jueteng. Padaca believes that the Manila meeting helped in drawing national attention toward jueteng. As a result, jueteng was stopped in Isabela and other parts of Luzon for a full year.

Last year, though, Padaca announced that jueteng had returned to Isabela. She has had a hard time in the fight against jueteng, especially since the Philippine National Police transferred Isabela’s provincial director (who had been sympathetic to Padaca’s cause) last year and replaced him with a series of officers in charge. A regular provincial director was appointed last January.

Still, Padaca believes that jueteng operators in Isabela make less profit because she is the governor.

Along with jueteng, Padaca is also fighting another pernicious problem: illegal logging. She formed an anti-illegal logging task force because she wasn’t satisfied with the job done by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Last year, the task force was able to confiscate more than 2,000 pieces of illegally cut log. But like jueteng, illegal logging remains. And more often than not, the problem’s persistence is blamed on Padaca.

“This is what my people in the capitol fear, that when we cannot cover all [the issues] it seems like we’re the ones who have failed, when we should just be playing a supporting role,” she says.

If she had her way, she would rather not run for re-election, she says. “I wish there was someone other than me who could take over, somebody other than me who has more fire in his belly for things like this,” she says. But Padaca says that it’s too soon to expect that Isabelinos will prioritize a candidate’s platform over their personality. “This is why they say I’m still the best bet.”

She is expecting a tougher fight in the May elections. “One of the reasons why I think I won in the last elections was that they underestimated me,” she says. “But this time, it’s different.”

She says that she is bracing herself for anything and everything, even below-the-belt accusations. After all, her rivals have had three years to lick their wounds and plan their campaign. Now, she says, “my opponents will take me seriously.”

Errata: In our first uploaded report, we said Mercedes Uy was the former mayor of Cauayan, and that the province of Isabela owed P700,000. Mercedes Uy is the former mayor of Ilagan and the province of Isabela owed over P700 million, not P700,000. We regret the errors.