More a series of impressions than a direct political portrait, a conversation with Senate reelectionist Francis Escudero, better known to the public as Chiz, reveals the ideals and goals that move a man who could be president one day.
Senator Francis Joseph Guevara escudero wears his stature easily, making it look so effortless and so apt. Yet his being likeable goes beyond having his very down-to-earth nickname—Chiz being a youthful moniker that immediately signifies new blood. He gives off a sense of the “everyman,” and with it that trust factor that wins people over or blunts any sort of misgiving. As a senator who does product endorsement as favors for friends who own businesses, as he told Manila times earlier this July, his smiling face is seen on billboards and buses just as his serious countenance is on television during televised senate hearings. Curiously, both sides to his persona make him seem all the more accessible. In fact, at a recent photo shoot for another endorsement, Chiz had barely stepped out of the studio for a short break when a few women burst from the adjacent office to ask for a photo. Gamely, the senator indulged them. The reaction he elicits is a little bit like a rock star, albeit in a subdued way, with his presence inspiring giddy smiles from people waiting to take a photo with him.
When the flurry of activities dies down, he notes, “I’m not used sa ganung klaseng atensyon (to this kind of attention).” it’s a little surprising, if a tad self-effacing, considering he does look the part of a self-assured public figure. He even jokes, “Madalas ko ngang sinasabi nung high school ako, lahat ng mga crush ko walang crush sa ‘kin e. (When I was in high school, everyone I had a crush on didn’t like me back)” More seriously, he admits, “Pinagpawisan ‘yung kamay ko at may kaba pa rin ako ‘pag nagsasalita. (I still get nervous whenever I have to speak.)” Still, he welcomes this uneasiness as a “good feeling,” going on to say, “it keeps my feet on the ground, makes me more real and in touch with who I was before I entered politics. A day will come soon that I’ll no longer be in politics and be back to who I was before I joined it.”
In the face of many politicians who see the impression of retirement as an alien concept, this one thinks of the day he would leave public service behind, leaving the impression that he would voluntarily do so when the time comes. “No one sits or holds a position forever. Kung hindi ko kayang gawin ‘yon (when I won’t be able to do the job), someone will step up to the plate and perform the job perhaps even better than I have or will ever be able to.”
Senator Chiz is an articulate, self-edited speaker who delivers his words rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting, this speaking cadence; it makes most of the things he says sound like a practiced speech instead of an impromptu answer, but that’s just a manner called for by his position. During the shoot, the senator laughs and talks easily, but that might seem inappropriate when he’s on duty. “’Yung salita ko kasi, nanggaling sa pelikulang Pilipino na mahilig manood ‘yung yaya ko nun (I learned how to talk from Filipino movies that my nanny used to like watching).” he adds, “Kasi inimbento naman ang salita para magkaintindihan tayo, hindi para magandang pakinggan. Mas mahalaga na maintindihan ka. (Language was invented for us to understand each other, not for it to sound good. It’s more important to be understood.)”
Coming from a middle class family, he proudly says, “hanggang ngayon ‘yon pa rin ang pananaw at pagtingin ko sa sarili ko. Lumaki ako sa ordinaryong bahay, nag-aral sa pampublikong paaralan, nagba-basketball sa kanto—lahat ‘yon pinagdaanan ko. (That’s still the way I see myself. I grew up in an ordinary house, went to public school, played basketball on the street—I went through all that.)”
The senator is a fourth- generation escudero to serve as a pubic official, his father the late Salvador Escudero, Marcos-era Minister of Food and agriculture before moving on to become the Secretary of Agriculture in 1996 and later a congressman. The family name, he notes, is what makes people assume wealth, because of the popular Villa Escudero, a plantation and resort on the border of Quezon and Laguna that belongs to distant relatives.
Tt’s one thing to build a reputation, and another to keep it. The senator enjoys a high public approval rating, winning his seat in the senate with the second highest number of votes, only slightly behind Senator Loren Legarda. Running for a re-election in 2013, the senator topped a Pulse Asia survey published in December 2011. His highly public persona has been met with criticism, as has been his designs for the highest seat in the land. “Anyone who’s in politics right now who says they do not have an eye for the presidency is lying through his teeth,” he says. “Wala namang masama roon. (there’s nothing wrong with that)”
Still, when asked if he thinks he is ready for the job, he quickly says, “no one is ready to be president. Walang isang taong kayang gawin lahat ‘yan. (there’s noone who can do all that) I think it’s a question of having your heart in the right place, and of being in government long enough to know its limitations and what needs to be done, but not too long to be eaten by the system and not be able to effect meaningful change anymore.”
One thing he learned from his father is to live a simple life, its importance especially emphasized during the EDSA Revolution in 1986. “Noong panahon ni Marcos, akala nila wala nang katapusan ang pagiging nasa pwesto nila. Pero hindi ganun ang tatay ko at sa murang edad nakita ko ‘yon. Mula sa pagkakaroon ng maraming kaibigan, maraming nagbibigay ng kung anu-anong regalo, biglang nawala lahat ‘yon. (During Marcos’ time, the politicians thought there was no end to their terms. But my dad wasn’t like that and i saw that at a young age. having a lot of friends and receiving a lot of gifts, it was just suddenly gone.)” But he recalls still having a relatively normal life compared to those displaced by the former president’s loss of power.
He also remains pragmatic when it comes to working within the system. “Most people think: ‘ayaw ko pumasok sa gobyerno kasi ang dumi nila (i don’t want to be in the government because they’re corrupt.)’ Kaya siguro madudumi nga ang ibang nasa gobyerno dahil ang malilinis ayaw pumasok e. (Maybe officials are corrupt because the good ones don’t want to go into politics.) Secondly, you can’t change anything from the outside. to change things, the effort should come both from the inside and the outside. Third, siguro ‘yon ang dahilan kung bakit ako maaga pumasok sa pulitika at kung bakit ayaw kong tumanda sa pulitika. Kasi kung katulad ko rin sila, dapat umalis na rin ako rito. (Maybe that’s the reason i entered politics early and why i don’t want to grow old in that position, because if once I become like those who are corrupt, then it’s time for me to go.)”
The outlook on the government might come from the televised hearings that deal with those accused of corruption and inquests into missing funds by the millions—figures that are a travesty to be thrown in the face of many living in poverty. “It is frustrating sometimes, but also unfair,” says Senator Chiz, before arguing that the media often reports only the most sensational. “Hindi namin kasalanan kung ang kino-cover ng media lang ‘yong away at ‘yong kontrobersiya. (It’s not our fault that the media only covers the fights and the controversies.) that it’s seen on tV does not necessarily mean that that’s the only thing we’re doing. That’s just how it is, we cannot impose on media what they will air on tV or radio, or write in print.”
Of all his work, he says he is proudest when, as a Congressman, he was instrumental in providing electricity in barangays in Sorsogon, even connecting them via a road network–things taken for granted in cities. Meanwhile, as a member of the Senate, he values having given voice to a good number of Filipinos in the various issues of government. Like most citizens, he decries the lack of continuity in projects, believing that there should be career officials in certain departments. “Certain departments should have career officials, for continuity regardless of who the president is. Otherwise, ‘yong bagong palit na Secretary, ire-review to death ‘yong mga ginawa ng nakaraan, hahanapin ng butas at kaso. (The new Secretary would just review the programs of the previous, looking for something to build a case on.)”
Believing that “government is about allocating scarce resources,” the senator says that when he does choose to run for higher office, “Kwentas klaras,” he saus pointedly. “What you see is what you get. Our platform would be based on the national budget. Kung hindi mo naman popondahan ‘yan, ‘wag ka nang magaksaya ng laway. (If you’re not going to put money in, then don’t waste your breath.)” He cites the examples of the government choosing to allocate one billion pesos per province to 80 provinces. “We have a budget of nearly two trillion persos already. One billion lang ang pinaguusapan natin. Walongpu lang ang probinsya mo eh. Kada probinsya, iba ang pangangailangan. Habang tumataas and pwesto mo, mas lalo ka dapat magtanon kung anong kailangan ng pinaglilingkuran mo. (We’re only talking about one billion for just eighty provinces. Each province has its own needs. The higher office you hold, the more you should be asking about the needs of the people you serve.)”
As for future political plans, he keeps it simple. “In general terms, I just want to continue to represent the people. I also want to focus on education. I haven’t been fortunate enough to the chair of the Committee of Education in the Senate. Hopefully this coming Congress, I will.” Of course, an elected official has additional burdens that he is accountable for, and Senator Chiz has more ideas about how things should be run within the system. As he champions the plight of the less fortunate and to address the inequalities in the government, what really drives him to public services is simply: “I’ve always wanted to be remembered for having dones something while remembering that I should keep my name clean.”
His personal life may have recently become entertainment and internet fodder, thanks to a new relationship with actress Heart Evangelista, but Senator Chiz points out, “It’s not coming from us. Hiwalay naman kasi ‘yon e. ‘Yong personal kong buhay, walang kinalaman sa trabaho ko. (That’s a separate matter. My personal life has nothing to do with my work.)” He is clear that, even while still married, he refuses to take his work home with him. Outside of the job, his family is his motivation, making a point to spend time with his kids, fraternal twins Maria cecilia and Joaquin cruz. Especially now as a single parent, he comes home between appointments and even makes an effort to instill discipline, for them “to have a sense na hindi lahat ng gusto nilang gawin, pwede nilang gawin. (that they can’t do everything they want to do.)” In fact, this holiday season, the thing he most looks forward to is to see “the look on my twins’ faces when they open their gifts.”
There really is a sense of lightness in how Senator Chiz carries himself, perhaps the lack of a self- important air. During the interview, he arrives without a coterie of staff fussing over him or a hound of bodyguards to keep anyone from getting too close. The truthfulness of a public official isn’t in rhetoric, it is in action; and Senator Chiz is an idealist with a vision to change the system
to serve people better. Whether he succeeds or simply ignites hope for future leaders, hopefully what he’s done so far as a true public servant will hold when put to the test, especially in light of the hard work that has chosen him.
by Annie S. Alejo photography Doc Marlon Pecjo art direction and styling by Melo Esguerra shot on location at Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila Hotel