MANILA, MAY 30, 2011 (MANILA TIMES SUNDAY MAG) BY EFREN L. DANAO SENIOR REPORTER - SEN. Francis “Chiz” Escudero could have been the youngest elected Philippine president had he decided to run for the post in May 2010. He met the age requirement for a presidential candidate when he turned 40 on October 10, 2009. He was high in surveys. With his looks, charisma and intelligence, he inevitably became the strong favorite of young voters who comprise the majority of the electorate. He was also the presumptive standard bearer of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, his only party since he entered politics in 1998 at age 28 and became congressman of Sorsogon.

Malacañang eventually vanished from the radar of Chiz, who created a stir when he resigned from the NPC on October 28, 2009. Without a political party, Chiz could not possibly be a serious candidate. Then followed the bombshell that broke the heart of his supporters although they might have expected it: he would no longer seek the presidency in the 2010 election. He later announced his support for the mixed ticket of Noy-Bi (Noynoy-Binay), much to the annoyance of Aquino’s running mate, then Sen. Mar Roxas.

By keeping off the presidential race, Chiz averted a potential rivalry with Aquino, his friend since their days in the House of Representatives. He admitted that before he made the decision, he had talked with Aquino but he insisted that Aquino did not ask anything from him and he did not give anything to Aquino.

“We merely agreed that whatever my decision would be, we will remain friends,” he said.

Chiz said that among all the senators, Aquino was closest to him. In fact, Aquino even became the godfather of Chiz’s twins. Asked to describe his relationship with the President, Chiz said it is more personal than political — which could be surprising because both are politicians.

“He was the only one with me when we went out after Senate sessions,” he said.

He did not say where they hung out after sessions, but it does not take much imagination to guess where these men-about-town usually went.

He chuckled when he recalled that his father, Sorsogon Rep. Salvador Escudero 3rd, was a Cabinet member of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, whom the Aquinos accuse of plotting the assassination of the martyred Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. the president’s father. He said that this background has not prevented him and the President from maintaining their close bonds.

He showed the depth of their friendship when he intoned: “I will always be there should he need my help.” As the saying goes, “A friend in need is a friend in deed.”

Chiz stressed, however, that their friendship does not impede them from doing their respective duties. “I have my responsibilities as a senator. Noy has his as a president,” he said.

So, their friendship notwithstanding, Chiz is keen on preserving the independence of the Senate from Malacañang. Nowhere is this more evident than in their divergent views on the deferment of the August 8 election at the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

“Noy was aware of my position on the ARMM even before the LEDAC meeting,” he said, referring to the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council meeting in February.

In that meeting, the President certified as urgent the bill resetting the ARMM election to the second Monday of May 2013 to coincide with the midterm election. Chiz opposes the postponement, saying this runs counter to the concept of regional autonomy.

“The people in the Middle East are up in arms because they want to vote. They want to choose who will be their leaders. Here, the administration wants to take away that right to vote and appoint ARMM leaders!” he said.

He contended that outsiders could not decide for the ARMM voters on who their leaders should be.

“Noy respects my stand on ARMM. He has not pressured me to change my stand,” he added.

As a legislator, he was the most productive committee chairman in the previous Congress. Research by The Manila Times showed that Chiz had produced the most number of committee reports in the 14th Congress. In the current Congress, he has several bills on second reading, including that updating the law on subsidiary imprisonment.

Of all the laws he has authored, he is proudest of the one exempting minimum wage earners from filing income tax returns and raising the personal exemptions of wage earners. When he was still a congressman, he authored the Early Child Development Act. Sen. Edgardo J. Angara is now seeking to amend this law to include mandatory pre-schooling.

Dream on hold When Chiz announced his decision on November 24, 2009 not to run for president in May 2010, he raised the possibility that he might still run at some future time.

“I have decided that now is not the only time to realize my dream of the presidency. I will continue to hold on to that dream and promise if not now, in the coming days,” he said in that press conference at the Club Filipino when he declared that he was standing down.

Does that mean he is still keeping a keen eye on the 2016 presidential election?

Chiz said that his plans for 2016 hinge on his rating in surveys and his capability to wage a nationwide campaign. He admitted that he is not sure if he could still duplicate his high ratings in surveys for presidential wannabes in 2010. He also pointed out that he is the second poorest senator and he has no personal fortune to prop up a national ticket and a national campaign.

A problem would be how such a presidential bid would affect his relationship with Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is believed to have the presidential itch also. Chiz, however, shrugged off that “problem.”

“That is creating a problem based on a conjecture. Nobody can say if Jojo will run or if I will run,” he said.

He also believes that a presidential candidate could still win even if he has no political party.

“A major chunk of those who supported Noy are not Liberals. Binay won even if the political parties that supported him were paper parties. Poll watchers? But watchers are not needed at all in automated elections. And today, so what if Lakas endorses a candidate for president?” he argued.

He contended that almost all political parties are the same insofar as platforms are concerned so it does not matter what party a candidate belongs.

Looking back at his former party, Chiz said that he remains friends with leaders of the NPC even if he had quit the party.

“I am okay with them. I don’t have to be a member,” he said.

Running with or against Mar? But before 2016, Chiz must first seek reelection to the Senate in May 2013. He placed second in the 2007 senatorial election so his reelection should be a breeze. This time, however, there is the added question of sharing the same stage with former Sen. Mar Roxas.

There were commentaries on “bad blood” between the two stemming from Chiz’s support for Binay for vice president instead of Roxas, Aquino’s running mate. It is highly probable that Chiz and Roxas will be on the ticket of the administration come 2013 because no single political party is capable of fielding a complete 12-man slate for the Senate.

Chiz said he would gratefully accept any endorsement by the administration and that he would not mind campaigning alongside Roxas in 2013.

“Mar has not done anything against me. Now, I don’t know if he bears a grudge against me for not voting for him. But if he does, then that means he is also angry at the 38 million Filipinos who did not vote for him,” he said.

He stressed that he could not possibly be accused of junking Roxas in favor of Binay because he was not a Liberal who was duty-bound to vote for the Aquino-Roxas tandem.

Some were predicting that the 2013 senatorial election will be a preview of the 2016 presidential rivalry between Chiz and Roxas. Whoever between them will top the 2013 senatorial election will have a commanding edge come 2016. Some were already predicting that their supporters will be junking the other candidate to show who is really the more popular between them.

Chiz sought to douse cold water on speculations of such a scenario. He said he does not believe that topping the senatorial election matters much in a presidential election.

“That is a wrong assumption. In recent history, no Senate topnotcher has ever become president. Being a topnotcher is not a prerequisite for being elected president,” he said.

He noted that Jovito Salonga was topnotcher in the 1987 senatorial election but did not win in the 1992 presidential election. (Obviously, Chiz forgot about Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who got the most number of votes in the 1995 senatorial election. However, the supporters of Fernando Poe Jr., including Chiz, maintain to this day that FPJ was cheated out of Malacañang by GMA in the 2004 presidential election.) “Noli (de Castro), the topnotcher in 2001, won in 2004 but as vice president,” he added.

Sen. Loren Legarda got the most number of votes in 1998 and 2007 but failed in her bid for the vice presidency in 2004 and 2010.

Then there is Roxas who was No. 1 in the 2004 senatorial election. As everybody knows, he lost his bid for the vice-presidency to Binay in 2010.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved