One man's dream ends century-old political dynasty in Bantayan, Cebu

CEBU, Philippines – When he was young, Bantayan town's mayor-elect Arthur "Art" Despi dreamt of becoming "the village hero armed with a magical ring, helping the needy." He was still in grade school when he vowed to become mayor, which to him was the equivalent of becoming a hero, minus the magical ring.

Realized in the 2016 elections, that very same dream ended the Escario family's century-old political dynasty in the town.

"In my younger years, naa na man ko anang mga pantasya (I had these fantasies). Mag-imagine lang ko nga naa koy gamhanang singsing (I always imagined that I had a magical ring). I can make things happen kay gamhanan kay ko (because I was powerful)," Despi said.   

Sowing the seeds

Despi's father also ran for mayor in 1971. At the time, the Escarios had already been in power for 73 years. Their streak was not broken as Despi's father lost.

"I don't know if it was my father who influenced me then," Despi said. "Bisan pildi akong amahan pero nakatanom (Even though my father lost, he had sown)... Nagtanom siya pag-1971, karun tang 2016 nang-pupo sa bunga (He had sown the seeds in 1971, this 2016 we were finally able to reap the fruits.)"

Despi started his political career at 23 years old, serving as town councilor for two straight terms from 1992 to 1998.

He first ran for mayor in 2001 but lost to Geralyn Escario-Cañares by 700 votes. He ran again in 2004 but was defeated by Cañares anew.

After losing twice, Despi's resolve wavered. "Nakakaon na kog tagam (I got fed up). For me, it was fine to lose but I didn't lose alone. My supporters, they put their hopes on me. It weighed heavily on me every time I didn't win for their sake," he said.

But Despi admitted his stubbornness made him try again.

"I have a messianic complex. When I was in high school... my teacher once told me, if you believe in destiny na ikaw gyud ang kinahanglan (that you are the one who's needed), you pursue... Bisan kapila ko napildi (Despite the many times I lost), I pursue."

In 2007, Despi took a step back and planned a different approach for his campaign.

What would it take to run against a dynasty? What would convince the town to take a leap of faith?

"A unique selling proposition," he said. "What was I bringing? I was bringing an agenda of reform."

Economic reform

Despi is a self-made millionaire, with businesses in trade, poultry, and agriculture. 

His main agenda was heavily influenced by his corporate knowledge, centering on the development of the town's so-called "economic engines" – its abundant natural resources.

Bantayan is a coastal town known for its fishing grounds. For over 80 years, Despi said, the town's developmental projects neglected its natural resources. As a result, fishermen and other locals depending on the fishing trade became poorer.

Despi thought of restoring Bantayan "to its former glory – back to [being] paradise as it always has been." This, he said, was his "unique selling proposition."

In 2013, Despi didn't run for any position as he was chosen to be one of the mayor's consultants. In October 2015, he resigned with the intent to run in the 2016 elections.

Beating a dynasty

Last May, Despi faced off against incumbent mayor Ian Christopher Escario, a friend of his, and eventually won with 16,494 votes to Escario's 12,043.

Their friendship has remained intact even after the polls. As early as the evening of May 9, when Despi was leading the count by over 3,000 votes, Escario had already sent him a text message congratulating him on his victory.

During Despi's proclamation, election officers were reportedly overheard saying, "This is indeed historic. For the longest time, no one has ever won against an Escario."

The Escarios have ruled Bantayan since 1898 when the first Republic of the Philippines was established under General Emilio Aguinaldo. Town executives back then were called hefe militar.

Gregorio Escario became the first hefe militar of the municipality of Bantayan. The outgoing mayor is his great-grandchild.

After many years in power, the Escarios now hand over the reins to a man who, as a young boy, vowed to be the "magical hero" that Bantayan needs. Only time will tell how the hero's story unfolds. –