The independence of Grace Poe

MANILA, Philippines - When Mary Grace Poe was very young, she wanted to be an actress. 

“I’d bug my dad, ‘Please, please, can you make me extra in a movie?’” 

Her father wanted her to focus on school. “Please,” she would say, “I really want.”

And so Mary Grace went to the movies. She played the daughter of villain Paquito Diaz. She was friend to sidekick Max Alvarado. Always small roles, just enough to keep happy the much loved daughter of Fernando Poe, Jr., the man whose flaming sword held millions entranced before movie screens across the country for more than 3 decades. 

“But then, in high school, I realized I don’t want to be like my parents, because I’m going to be forever compared to them. So I didn’t want to be in show business, because they would be such a difficult act to follow.” 

Instead, she was “more into leadership roles.” She joined the grade school discipline committee, the high school debate team, and the freshman college assembly. 

“Still very public,” she says, “because you dealt with a lot of people, but it didn’t really require you to be physically comparable to your parents, that’s maybe why when my Dad decided to run I was probably the only one in the family who was supportive of it, cause I liked it.

“And I was telling him, “You know what, we need talaga people like you who are honest.”

Life around FPJ

She is a small woman, barely over 5 feet. Her nails are plain and unpainted. She is poised, almost prim, the shiny shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail. There is the illusion of a girl playing dress-up in her mother’s high heels and pearl earrings, only this girl was brought up by people who understood the value of gracious goodwill and the personal touch. 

In the offices of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, newcomers are welcomed with a flattering introduction to another friend. The man in the battered hat who would like a photo with FPJ’s daughter is allowed to display The King’s photo from his wallet. The coiffeured matriarch of Regal Films is laughed into a smile. The small wide-eyed daughter of a petitioner is patted on the cheek. 

At the center of a crowded room, Grace Poe is exactly what she is supposed to be—a politician. Every old friend is greeted with a buss on the cheek, every visitor gets a photo and a few minutes reminiscing about the glory days of FPJ. Yet outside the handshaking and baby-kissing, Grace Poe pays attention. She is interested in budget legislation and the relative merits of nineties action films, and will remember the small details of long-ago encounters. She defuses small tensions with self-deprecating jokes, flattering more with her attention than with anything else. What she has is an unusual quality of sincerity, the sort that is less about self-awareness and more about good manners. 

Her stories begin and end with her father. He was a good man, she says. He wanted to help people. He felt the government was oppressive, and that it had to change. 

“People would find his intentions unbelievable, but it was the truth. 

They ridiculed him, she says. They said he was “only an actor.” They said he knew nothing about governance. They forgot that he was successful in his own right, had given jobs to hundreds, had managed, in fact, to run an independent production studio for the better part of 30 years. He was, she says, the leader the country needed. 

And so Grace is back, in the name of Fernando Poe, Jr.  She is here to remind the country that even if her father was cheated out of the presidency, his daughter will carry the sword.

“I want to prove that FPJ, the person they ridiculed, was able to raise somebody like me, who is taking after maybe him in a way, but also continuing his legacy. This is what I want everyone to remember of him.” 

Inherited leadership

Grace Poe-Llamanzares was living with her family in the United States when Fernando Poe, Jr., acknowledged king of the Philippine action film, collapsed from a stroke at a Christmas party in December of 2004, seven months after he lost the national elections. He slipped into a coma, and died without regaining consciousness. He was 65 years old. 

“Someone had to speak up for the family, and my mom did that, but it was emotionally a burden for her already, mourning and at the same time speaking on behalf of my Dad. So I did that.”

She admits that she was given her position in the MTRCB because of her parents’ reputation. Like many children of politicians, she believes in the mythology of inherited leadership. It is the weight of that parental legacy, she says, that compels the children of giants to do well in the service of the nation. She talks about what it means to grow up “with a certain entitlement,” and brings up President Benigno Aquino III as an example. 

“Maybe I’m coming from [Aquino’s] same situation. I have both famous parents. Maybe not like them in a national category.” 

The argument for inherited leadership is not new, and it is the narrative the country has accepted, electing Ninoy Aquino’s wife and son, Diosdado Macapagal’s daughter and Joseph Estrada’s sons into the national government. Yet even assuming leadership is a function of upbringing—not genetics, as Poe herself is an adopted child—the campaign for the election of FPJ’s daughter creates an extraordinary situation. 

By invoking his name to justify hers, Grace Poe returns her father to the campaign stage, to be judged again by the standards he was judged by in 2004, bringing back the same ridicule that Grace finds so offensive—that FPJ was “only” an actor, unschooled, naïve, inexperienced.

Unlike Aquino and the many children of political dynasties, Grace Poe’s inheritance of political leadership is based on FPJ’s potential for government leadership. The sudden loss then fall of the man who could have been king gives the public very little basis to judge his weight as a political figure. There are no Tondo constituencies to howl in defense of Mayor Asiong Salonga, no generations of senatorial Revillas to disprove—or prove—accusations of ineptitude, no Aquino uncle or mother or cousin to serve as an example of bright and glorious idealism, certainly none of the alleged birthright of leadership Grace Poe’s opponents are only too happy to exploit. 

To claim to carry on with her father’s legacy makes it necessary to ask what that legacy is in the political arena. It also points to a contradiction at the heart of Grace Poe’s political campaign: She seeks political office to restore her father’s reputation, and yet depends on that same reputation to win her the election. 

It is the reason why it is important to judge Grace Poe, as herself, independent of the man they call king. 

On cybercrime, RH bill

Grace believes in many things. She believes the Department of Social Welfare and Development is too bureaucratic, and that government needs to cut through red tape. She believes the best qualification for a censors’ board member is having children under 18. She believes the Cybercrime law is important, but that certain clauses should never have been passed—“If a person in the Senate can miss something like that, it’s very telling.” 

Congress, says Grace Poe, should be a representation of a cross-section of society. She believes women are being accepted slowly in society, but the support system of the government is just slowly catching up. That there are only three women in the senate shows there is a need for more. 

“There’s really a specific role of the father, he’s the tough guy in the family, but the woman is more into the caring side.” 

The exception, says Grace, is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. 

“I didn’t feel the nurturing of a woman with her as a president. Maybe she was a tough president—sitting president, let me qualify. She is—it’s as if you can’t really define the gender there.”

Arroyo won in 2004 against Fernando Poe, Jr. in a controversial election allegedly wracked by fraud. Grace feels Arroyo failed to stand for women. “Even just to encourage the continuous, continuing debate on the RH Bill, she didn’t really encourage that.”

Yet Poe herself is very careful when asked about the controversial Reproductive Health bill. 

“For me to say I am for [the bill] would be irresponsible because actually the debate should be made public, everybody should know.”

Debates on the bill have been widely covered by the media, and have been open to the public for the past 14 years. Many of Poe’s questions can be answered by a cursory reading of the bill. In principle, however, Poe believes that condoms, pills and injectibles are not abortifacient. She believes in the woman’s right to choose, and a support system that builds on the family unit. She believes in day care centers for women, and the proper enforcement of detention centers for children in conflict with the law. 

Poe is well aware her background sets her apart from many women. She sees no obstacle to understanding the impoverished plight of most Filipino women. The many who have come to her father for assistance have shown her how difficult the situation is. 

“So what I am saying is, we don’t exactly have to be in that exact in-depth situation to have a good idea of how we can help our countrymen.”

Joining the Aquino coalition

“When I filed in the Comelec,” she explains, “my status is independent.”

She spells it out. “I-N-D, period.”

She is a member of the Liberal Party Coalition, but does not consider herself a representative of the Liberal Party, or of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) where she is a guest candidate. 

She says she joined the LPC because the President asked her, months before the filing.

“And of course, I’m just a mere mortal. I was really flattered.” Her voice becomes animated. “And it was such a to be recognized for my work in MTRCB which really in the huge scheme of things is like so little when it comes to budget-wise, right? But the President appreciated my work there so he invited me. Of course the factor that I’m FPJ’s daughter, I’m sure naman, ‘di ba, there’s some goodwill to that.” 

It was a challenge for the woman who watches Senate sessions and feels she can “help out.” On October 2, 2012, Grace Poe-Llamanzares, mother in tow, marched into the office of the Commission on Elections and filed for candidacy as senator of the Republic of the Philippines. When former President Joseph Estrada and Vice President Jejomar Binay of UNA found out about her decision, “They were like, ‘We can’t not support you because your father was our best friend.”

“I know personally they’re looking out for me. I’m only human myself. I can’t set that aside.” 

She says she chose the Aquino coalition because the party looked at her track record as well as her family, while UNA simply looked at the fact she was FPJ’s daughter. She is “sad” over President Aquino’s ban on campaigning with the UNA slate, although she says there’s nothing stopping her from campaigning with Estrada or Binay. She does not agree with the composition of UNA’s coalition, some of whose members she believes are symbolic of electoral fraud. She accepts that their inclusion is a political decision—“You know there are certain political decisions that you shouldn’t take personally.” 

She would like to be included in the political advertisements of both parties, and does not feel her presence, side by side with those she believed cheated her father, is a contradiction.

“If they give it to me, I won’t say no. It’s not as if I asked for it, you know? I couldn’t say anything. And if I accept it doesn’t mean I compromised anything. I’m still moving forward against electoral fraud. I’m still angry with the former sitting President. It’s just too bad there are people in the party now who were for her.”

She is aware she does not have the machinery to campaign her own way, and will accept what can be called the lesser evil. She does not believe she is compromising, and does not believe there is much of an ideological difference between either party. 

“You know what, here in our country, it has hardly any value when it comes to having a political party because people change parties like they would depending on the political weather, right?”

Keeping her independence

Grace Poe is an independent. She filed independent, she is running independent, she claims independence from her two parties, neither of which she stands for fully.

“I guess my statement, my public commitment is that I will sort of keep my independent stand when it comes to choosing who I feel would be effective for our country is by filing independently. That’s it. I filed independently. 

And yet Grace Poe is not independent. She runs with the ghost of Fernando Poe Jr. and carries the baggage of two political parties she has allowed to claim her as their own. She will take the lesser evil if the lesser evil is what it takes to win. She says her father was a good man, that he wanted to help people. 

“People would find his intentions unbelievable,” she says, “but it was the truth.”

The same is true for Grace Poe. She is a good woman. She is sincere, she is honest, she has the common touch and believes in serving the nation. She asks to be seen as a symbol—of her father, of justice, of new politics. She is a bright new voice, only that voice seems to be reading from the same old script. - Rappler.com