MANILA, Philippines – Senator Grace Poe, front runner in presidential preference surveys, has made it quite clear that should she run for a higher position in 2016, it has to be with friend and ally, Senator Francis "Chiz" Escudero.
Talks are rife in political circles, in fact, that she listens to him too much on decisions in relation to the coming elections, although people close to her say she has a mind of her own.
Some businessmen, however, are allegedly hesitant to fully fund Poe's possible presidential bid if she will insist on Escudero as running mate. These funders, a few sources told Rappler, have had not-so-pleasant experiences with or impressions of Escudero.
So will Escudero be a boon or bane to Poe's candidacy, if ever?
'Not a stranger'
Escudero became a family friend of the Poes in 2004, when he was the spokesperson of action star and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr, the senator's father. He stuck with the family when FPJ lost in an election widely believed to be fraud-fraught and until FPJ died in December 2004.
When Poe ran for the Senate with no machinery in 2013, it was Escudero who helped her. This strengthened her trust in him. After all, she emerged as the number one senator with more than 20 million votes.
In an interview in a 2013 campaign sortie, Poe said: “Chiz was not a stranger to my dad. He has become my best friend. I am so thankful to him. It’s difficult to lose a father, and Chiz has been protecting me. He’s not selfish. He gives me campaign tips unlike other people.”
Escudero then said he trained Poe early, citing the need for her to “realize how troubled this world is.” (READ: Grace Poe and Chiz: Campaign partners)
Now that Poe is leading in surveys, many political parties scramble to get her on their side.
The Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) already signified their intention to support Poe – and, yes, Escudero, who bolted the party in 2009 when NPC refused to support his planned presidential bid. (READ: Grace Poe could propel NPC as PH’s biggest political party)
While the ruling Liberal Party has so far failed in convincing Poe to run as its vice presidential candidate, it continues to court Poe and her camp. But LP insiders said it is Escudero that is the roadblock, as he has intention to run for higher post in 2016 – something he cannot do without Poe as partner.
Senator Sergio Osmeña III, Poe’s political adviser in 2013, earlier called on Poe to run for president as independent and shun the extra baggage that comes with Escudero.
Osmeña said that, for someone like Poe who has a spotless record and is perceived "clean" by the public, an association with Escudero may be detrimental due to issues associated with him. He, however, refused to elaborate.
Osmeña said of Poe: “She should run without extra weight, not running with anyone. Dapat mag-isa ka lang (She should be by herself.) Let the people decide. What if you want to support her but you don’t want Chiz? Why would you put yourself in that position?”
A high-ranking source in the legislature said Escudero’s connections with some “questionable” personalities, “like businessman Bobby Ongpin,” may be harmful to Poe’s impending campaign.
Ongpin, in 2013, admitted he and Escudero are friends. While Ongpin and the late Sonny Escudero, Chiz's father, were both members of the Marcos Cabinet, Ongpin said he only met Escudero in 2009 when the latter planned on seeking the presidency.
“At that time, he was still interested in running for president in the forthcoming elections, but even from that first meeting, he never asked me for money,” Ongpin said in a published full statement in the Inquirer.
But for NPC Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, this is not a problem unique to the tandem. He says all candidates have their strengths and weaknesses. Sotto has been vocal about NPC’s support for the tandem despite Escudero’s split from the party in 2009.
“Di naman, pare-parehas lang 'yan. All the candidates may mga kanya-kanyang lakas at hina 'yan. I know for a fact, on personal level, I will be supporting Senator Grace if she decides [to run]. As I said before and I’ll say it again, maraming susuporta kay Grace. Maraming susuporta sa Grace-Chiz tandem. Im not saying 100% na kami, pero marami,” Sotto told Rappler on August 10.
(No, it's just the same. All candidates have their own strengths and weaknesses. I know for a fact on a personal level, I will be supporting Senator Grace if she decides [to run]. As I said before and I'll say it again, many NPC members will support Grace. Many will support the Grace-Chiz tandem. I'm not saying we're now 100 percent but we are many.)
Sotto said Escudero’s machinery and experience would “greatly contribute” to Poe’s candidacy.
“Senator Chiz has 18 years of experience, is a very young politician but very experienced, and he is well-organized. So if he’s well-organized nationwide, that’s probably what would be needed if Senator Grace decides to run for president. As early as 2010, Escudero was already laid out, it didn’t matter if it was NPC or not...so malaki mako-contribute (so he'll greatly contribute [to Sen. Grace]),” Sotto said.
People's interest first
Poe’s son Brian told Rappler the fact that Escudero stood by his mother and the family since 2004 is a testament to Escudero’s help to his mother’s political career.
While admitting the close ties between the two, Brian defended her mother and said his mother “has proven that she keeps her friends close but keeps the people’s interest closer.”
While some criticize Poe's supposed reliance on Escudero, Brian said Poe has proven her independence, citing the Mamasapano hearings and her criticisms of the Metro Rail Transit management.
“She's proven her independence especially when it came down to the tough decisions that needed to be made during the hearings on the Mamasapano incident, my mom showed that even if the President was a close friend she did what was right and spoke the truth based on the facts,” he told Rappler in a text message.
He also refuted allegations that Escudero is weighing his mother down.
“Senator Escudero and my mom have a mutual respect for each other. It's wrong to say he's weighing her down or holding her back when he has openly stated he would give way to my mom if needed and would support my mom 100% if she needed him,” he said.
Chiz getting more?
But University of Santo Tomas political science professor Edmund Tayao said Escudero is getting more out of the partnership as Poe has more to lose.
“Grace may be the presidential figure, she will be the presidential candidate, but at this stage it appears Chiz is the one calling the shots as to how to run the show or political campaign or what have you,” Tayao told Rappler.
Tayao said there are issues within the camps, as not everyone is willing to work with Escudero.
“Probably the relationship between Grace and Chiz, they are okay. But as far as those people working with them, it’s an entirely different question,” meaning there might be uncertainty about how one team will be able to accept the leadership of another team, he said.
This is an issue that they may face once a bigger campaign ensues. After all, Tayao said, for a partnership to work, the people around them “should also be able to work comfortably with each other.”
“Chiz might be taking too much of the partnership to the point the other one is eclipsed,” he said.
But Escudero in an earlier interview said this is an “insult” to Poe’s ability to decide for herself.
For the business sector, it is too early to say whom they will support in 2016. Makati Business Club executive director Peter Perfecto said business groups, such as MBC, hardly impose on its members.
“It’s not going to be a sector or business group position. I don’t think they would just support one [candidate]. They will talk to the stronger aspirant, they will engage those doing good in surveys, and has perceived network, na seryoso, meron talagang makinarya,” Perfecto told Rappler.
He added chief executive officers, in their personal capacity, usually contribute to more than one candidate.
While he admitted it is perceived as one way of playing safe, Perfecto said it’s not just that “as business is about who will level the playing field.”
“Any presidentiable who can work with it. Often times it’s projected as playing safe, I don’t think it’s just that. Business is about who will level the playing field, who will attract more investments. Therefore it’s not necessarily just one,” Perfecto said.
Perfecto said Poe has apparent similarities to President Benigno Aquino III when he ran in 2010.
“She’s tickled the imagination of a lot of people. And they see her as a clear potential alternative to the other two. That's okay. It’s important who we choose in 2016 will continue the current trajectory and then addressing the siguro economic growth, inclusive growth,” Perfecto said.
While Perfecto did not directly answer what they think of the Poe-Escudero tandem, he said there is nothing wrong with that as we are in a democratic country.
A prominent businessman, who requested anonymity, said many businessmen have concerns about Escudero, as he is associated with the old tradition of politics in contrast to Poe’s supposed clean image.
Escudero left the NPC in 2009, after the party leadership did not agree to the funding he had required for his planned presidential candidacy. Escudero then came out in television ads supporting the candidacies of Benigno Aquino III for president and opposition candidate Jejomar Binay for vice president. Both candidates won in the 2010 polls.
In 2013, UNA dropped him and Poe from their slate after failing to join any of the sorties. In 2015, Escudero signed the Senate committee report recommending plunder charges against the Vice President and his son Junjun, the mayor of Makati. He then criticized Binay for failing to explain corruption allegations against him and his family. (READ: A long way from 'Noybi': Chiz weighs in on Binay)
Still, some business bigwigs are still reportedly supporting Poe along with Escudero. The same prominent businessman said NPC chairman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr and San Miguel Corporation’s chief operating officer and president Ramon Ang are supporters of the tandem.
Ang, Cojuangco, and Ongpin are known business partners and friends. Ang and Ongpin both stood as principal sponsors in the wedding of Escudero and actress Heart Evangelista. (READ: Chiz: No conflict of interest in Balesin wedding)
Poe’s husband Teodoro “Neil” Llamanzares has worked as an executive in San Miguel since 2006. According to his LinkedIn profile, he is now a “Special Consultant to the Chief Executive Adviser of San Miguel Corporation's telecommunications group, for IT related initiatives.” – Rappler.com