Monday, November 16, 2009

Debt and Gratitude: How Gonzalez Jumpstarted the Political Career of Trenas

As a small boy my father taught me never to get caught in a situation where I will find myself indebted to another person. My late father was an extremely proud man and as a child he often admonished me whenever I took something or accepted a favour from someone. “Indi ka mag-molestiya” I remember were the words that he repeatedly drilled into us his children which to him means not only getting into financial debt but also includes paying your own way, earning your keep, advancing thru your own merit and not being a burden to others. But as I became older I found out that it is virtually impossible not to get into someone else’s debt in one way or another. "No man is an island" and as we go thru life we indubitably accumulate debts of gratitude along the way. Thus, life is not so much about learning how to avoid but how to honor your debts.

I got into thinking about this subject of debt and gratitude because people in Iloilo City are currently talking about how Mayor Jerry Trenas is a big ingrate who does not know how to pay his debt of gratitude to the Gonzalezes. Mayor Trenas himself admitted during his press conference that he “owes a lot” to the Gonzalezes and this got me curious enough to investigate how exactly did he get himself indebted to them. Here is the inside story:

Even at a young age, Buenaventura Geronimo “Jerry” Perez Trenas already displayed above-average intelligence and leadership qualities that seemed to pre-destine him to a life in politics. After placing 11th during the 1982 bar examinations, he joined the prestigious ACCRA law office of Senators Edgardo Angara and Franklin Drilon in Makati City. He then went back to Iloilo City to manage the law firm founded by his grandfather, the Trenas, Trenas & Rubias Law Office. Since his father and grandfather have been lawyering for the Iloilo’s landed and merchant families since the time of President Manuel Quezon, Trenas easily established a name in local circles. He made a good living out of his law practice because he inherited not only his father’s and grandfather’s law office but most of their “old rich” clients as well. Aside from that, Trenas also married well: his wife Rosalie belongs to the Sarabia clan which owns a chain of optical shops, pawnshops and other business interests in Iloilo and Manila.

In 1986, Jerry Trenas made a very auspicious start in local politics when Cory Aquino appointed him councilor of Iloilo City (along with Mayor Tita Caram) in gratitude for his efforts during the anti-Marcos struggle. Because of his impressive credentials, was earmarked early on as a “mayorable.” But after such a promising start, things began to slowly unravel for the boyish-looking politician from Mandurriao. When he first ran for mayor he was defeated by the populist and popular politician from Molo, Mansueto “Mansing” Malabor. I remember this clearly because my clan supported his candidacy by virtue of my uncle being his law partner. I also remember that the reason he lost was because the people perceived him to be “elitist” due to his being a senator’s grandson, his being an Atenean, his being married into one of the richest families in Iloilo City and his aloof demeanour which Ilonggos tended to misinterpret as arrogance or snobbishness.

After his electoral fiasco, Jerry Trenas was in a political limbo. He was bitter, suffering from depression and he lost all his enthusiasm for politics. Seeing its damaging effects to him both psychologically and financially, his family swore that they will never again allow him to run for any public office. Most of his supporters have also abandoned him, thinking he is a “has-been.” Disheartened and disillusioned - this was the mental state of Jerry Trenas when Raul Gonzalez, Sr. (who was then a congressman) found him quite by accident eating at the foodcourt of MaryMart Mall sometime in 2000. At that time, Raul Senior was scouting around for a candidate to replace Malabor who was then serving his third and last term as mayor in 2001. Previously, Gonzalez had invited Congressman Paeng Lopez-Vito and Vice Mayor Guilling dela Llana to run for mayor under his ticket but both turned down his offer. With the 2001 elections fast approaching and still no mayoral candidate in sight, Gonzalez on impulse offered the slot to Trenas right there and then in the middle of MaryMart Mall. Trenas initially was non-committal (he did not refuse but he did not accept either) to the offer. He said that he had lost his appetite for politics and that he had already promised his loved ones that he will retire from politics. He also added that he was practically insolvent having spent all his money on his two previous attempts. But after several more meetings and subsequent negotiations, Trenas was eventually prevailed upon by the elder Gonzalez to run but only on the condition that they will share campaign expenses 25%-75% (that is, 25% Trenas, 75% Gonzalez). The elder Gonzalez agreed and the rest, as they say, is history. With his political base (mainly the Ilonggo middle-class) plus the Gonzalez machinery vote, Trenas handily won as mayor in 2001, then in 2004 and overwhelmingly in 2007.

I am sure that Gonzalez presently is ruing the day he made that decision to invite Trenas to his camp because, by resuscitating his moribund political career, he unwittingly bred a serious opponent for his son. Gonzalez Senior did everything to support Mayor Trenas and did absolutely nothing to antagonize him. He treated him with due respect, used his national influence to assist him in running Iloilo City, shouldered most of the political bills and even attempted to create a new congressional district for him when his term as mayor was up. So it would be perfectly natural for the Gonzalez camp to feel bad and call him an ingrate. Civil society (NGOs, Catholic Church, middle class groups, etc.) has a hoity toity word to describe this behaviour of politicians who don’t know how to pay their debts of gratitude and who abandon long-time allies for their personal advancement. I believe the term they use is “political opportunism.”

In hindsight, I still think Raul Senior did not err in choosing him because Trenas proved himself more than equal to the task of running Iloilo City. Trenas “raised the bar” so to speak for all the succeeding mayors to surpass and I think the people after having “tasted” his brand of leadership would not stand for another “Malabor-like” politician (i.e. someone from Molo again) to head City Hall. Ultimately, the people of Iloilo City benefited from Raul Senior’s fateful decision back in 2000 to revive the sputtering career of Jerry Trenas. And if Mayor Jerry became too big for his shoes, well that’s par for the course in the great game that is politics. Still, Gonzalez Senior did not deserve the treatment that he got from Mayor Trenas after all the things he had done for him.

Ilonggos innately do not like people who do not know how to pay their debts. In Iloilo City, individuals who have a “sense of entitlement” and “debt amnesia” are treated like pariahs, shunned and avoided by people. I am told that Mayor Trenas in the last couple of weeks has been trying to “collect” from his barangay captains, reminding them of past favors and the innumerable assistance he extended them and even threatening to fire their casuals in City Hall. To his chagrin, most of the barangay captains refused to honor their debts of gratitude to him. In effect, Trenas is currently getting a dose of his own medicine for how can he expect to “collect” when he himself doesn’t know how to pay back his own debt to the Gonzalezes. Failing to pay your debt makes it easy for people in turn not to pay their debts to you. Ilonggos do not like ingrates and come election day, I believe the voters will demonstrate what they really think about persons who do not know how to honor their debts of gratitude.


Shirley J. said...

"Utang na loob" is a source of graft and corruption in Philippine politics. Until this over-the-top payment of gratitude is minimized graft and corruption will be a perpetuating problem.

A question, in what way was Raul Senior expecting Jerry Trenas to pay his debt of gratitude?

I am not privy nor closely following Iloilo politics but I had always thought that this over the top "utang-na-loob" tradition in Philippine culture is a source of multitude of ills in our country.

Iloilo City Boy said...

Yes the Filipino utang na loob is both a bane and a boon, a vice and a virtue for the country. It is corruptive but utang na loob also brings out bayanihan and kindness in us. For if no one bothered to honor debts, we will no longer help and be kind to each other. It will be each man for himself and society as we now know it will crumble. In the US for example, children have no concept of utang na loob so they deposit their elderly in retirement homes.

Political opportunism (i.e. party switching, etc.) is much more common today unlike in the past because most politicians today lack an appreciation and refuse to honor their debts of gratitude. True leaders unite, not divide. And they are willing to sacrifice their personal ambitions for the group (like Senator Mar Roxas).

I believe GREED, not utang na loob, is the primary cause of graft and corruption. If you examine all the big corruption scandals (NBN-ZTE, Piatco, etc.), the personalities involved (Abalos, de Venecia, Lozada, Mike Arroyo) were not really that close to each other. They were all in it just "for the money" and the only reason why it blew up in their faces is because everyone became too greedy for their own good.

Hansel said...

What does the Gonzales clan want Jerry Trenas to do? He is an ingrate because?

Iloilo City Boy said...

I believe the Gonzalezes want him to run as vice mayor instead of congressman. He is an ingrate because he is trying to topple the son of his former patron.

Anonymous said...

The latest wrangling between the camps of Jed and Jerry manifest their lack of gravitas towards the coalition of their camps to its higher level.

The two reformers who secede from the political turfs of Don raul Sr., called for the new era of politics for new governance.

However,in working-out towards the merger of their two groups to fight the well-funded machineries of the Gonzalezes, one tended to
back stabbed each other.

On the question of vice-mayoralty, Jed opted to take Baronda and just waiting for the latter to accept the offer.

Jerry imposed the condition, acting from the hangover of his twelve years of covert relationships with Raul, that Jed has to take his brother -in-law
Councilor Joe Espinosa, as his vice mayor, or forget the merger!

While the negotiation is going on, in collaboration with Jerry, Joe declared his candidacy as vice-mayor under the camp of congressional candidate Jerry

Jed was so furious like a rabid dog with this early behind the door maneuvers of Jerry and Joe.

Wowie! A congressman in the making
with his emperial arrogance.

If this guy is elected as congressman, we can expect impositions from Congressman Jerry
taking Mayor Jed as mere scribe!

Now, the people of Iloilo City will judge for themselves. Behind the curtains of being a nice-guy mayor, there lies the plan for the
making of a new ruling elite in Iloilo City - The Jerry-Joe Dynasty!

sarah said...

Jerry Trenas is not only greedy he is a blasphemer. What can you expect from him, he used the name of God in vain and is not afraid of the consequences- how can he even think about being grateful to a human being?
Jed Mabilog???? I am not so sure about him. What is wrong with this people? Do they even have a conscience? They know in their hearts (that is if they do have one) that the main reason they are running for office is because of greed and power. I really feel sorry for them.

Anonymous said...

Recently, Raul Gonzalez, Jr. the mayoral candidate under Lakas-Kampi, described the opposing candidates as a party of "hupsuey." Mayor Jerry retorted that the other group is
"party baboy."

Who looks like one?

Shut up! Its gutter politics!

Anonymous said...

Utang na loob is the root of graft and corruption in the country. After taking office, politicians immediately start repaying their "debts" via favors, such as appoitments, fat government contracts, etc. It is an endless cycle that will take a somebody with a VERY STRONG political will to break. Frankly, it is a trait that our politicians lack. They are only looking forward to the next election. The people also need to do their part and start thinking long-term and vote based on platforms (if the present politician have that) and not for those who gave out the most cash or the most canned goods. I think Jerry TreƱas is doing the right thing by breaking away from Raul's camp and showing that his loyalty lies in the people of Iloilo and not to his former party.