2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Grace Padaca may be riddled by polio but this did not deter her from being the people’s voice as a well-respected broadcast journalist to the people’s champion as governor of the Philippine province of Isabela. Padaca proved that no disability, when Greatness of Spirit is applied, can be a hindrance to one’s ability to change the world for the better.
The righteous indignation of the masses over injustice and corruption, the fervor and will to bring about change – this is People Power at its best. But People Power, though it is a catalyst for change, itself needs a rallying figure who embodies the aspirations of the people.
In 1986 that figure was Corazon Aquino. But the political maelstrom of more recent years has brought out other figures – among them, Maria Gracia Cielo Padaca, who, against tremendous odds, broke the stranglehold of one of the most durable political dynasties of the Philippines, the Dys of Isabela.
Hobbling on crutches, without wealthy and powerful backers, Padaca, the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Government Service, crisscrossed Isabela in her successful 2004 bid for the Isabela governorship, relying on small contributions from grassroots supporters for campaign funds, borrowed vehicles for transportation, and poll volunteers to guard her ballots.
Padaca learned grit early. Born in 1963 in Naguilian, Isabela, to schoolteacher parents, she fell ill with polio at the age of three. Subjected to taunts by other children, she at first cried and sought refuge in the arms of her mother and retreated to a world of books, but she finally learned to take both her disability and the teasing in stride.
If physical mobility was hampered, her mind was not. She excelled in school, graduating valedictorian at the Cauayan South Central School in 1976 and at the Our Lady of Pillar Institute in 1980. College proved more challenging. Living at home during her grade school and high school years her parents and family had taken care of her; but when she enrolled at the Lyceum of Manila to study business administration, she knew that she would have to adjust to the people and environment around her, not vice versa. Since she did not want to be defined by her disability she studied hard, graduating magna cum laude in 1984 and becoming a certified public accountant the following year after passing the CPA board exams.
She did not get to practice her profession immediately; history intervened. The Philippines was in a ferment after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, and during the snap elections of 1986 she joined Radyo Bombo as an anchor. After the three-day election coverage, she left the station, only to be called back when People Power erupted.
She was given her own program, “Sa Totoo Lang”, and later, “Bombo Hanay Bigtime”. Together with slain lawyer Elpidio Monteclaro, she also hosted a public affairs program, “Alamin ang Iyong Karapatan” program over Bombo Radyo. Over her fourteen years as announcer and later as assistant radio manager at Bombo Radyo, she became known as “Bombo Grace.”
Every day she discussed the issues of the day, and came to realize that the province’s problems – the stagnant economy, the illegal logging, corruption and despoiled environment – could be traced to the domination of the Dy family over the political life of the province.
She also championed the cause of the poor and railed against military abuses even if she was thereby branded pro-NPA. Nevertheless she gained the respect of the military, and was never included in the army’s order of battle. She was incorruptible, refusing bribes and even gifts at Christmas.
She was probably the most popular and influential broadcaster in Isabela and the Cagayan Valley. The gauge of her impact on the populace came when a provincial prosecutor accused her of libel in 1992. She was arrested; as a matter of principle she refused to post bail and she was detained in the city jail in Ilagan. Bombo Radyo immediately announced the news of her arrest and launched a sympathy campaign for her. People from Quirino, Cagayan and Isabela – farmers, barrio and town folk – trooped to the city jail from October 22 -24 to maintain a vigil. Padaca wept to see the mass of supporters outside the jail, and to hear the messages of sympathy. A collection was raised from the crowd to raise the bail money of P 20,000, and eventually Padaca was released from jail. The charges were eventually dismissed.
In 2000, feeling burnt-out after 14 years as a broadcaster, she resigned from the station and joined the Commission of Audit as a state auditor. Soon after, however, her supporters entreated her to run for Congress against Faustino Dy III. She was at first hesitant – not only was she disabled, but she was without a party, money and influence, up against a powerful, moneyed political clan. She admits that as a novice politician, she really had no plan. But her message was, “Isabela para sa lahat, hindi para sa iilan lamang.”
But as news of her candidacy spread, donations came in – small amounts of money from ordinary people, biscuits, water. She relied on a loaned truck, available only every other day, to campaign in the towns and 278 barangays. She could only afford three 15-second spots daily on the radio, while the Dys, who had their own station, also bought an hour of daily radio time on Bombo Radyo. At first the Dys considered her a nuisance candidate; but when election day came around, they were surprised to see that she was winning in five out of the eight towns of the district. A dagdag-bawas operation was set in motion, but even so, Dy “won” by only 1,218 votes when around 90,000 votes were cast.
Padaca filed an electoral protest with the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal. The case took two and a half years, because while Padaca had contested the results of 151 precincts, Dy protested the returns of all 812 precincts, claiming that he had been cheated by Padaca. Dy was proclaimed the winner by 48 votes after the HRET invalidated ballots marked “Grace.”
To support herself while she followed up the electoral protest, Padaca worked as an accountant at Hacienda Bigaa, Calatagan. In 2004, she tossed her hat into the ring once again, this time running for governor against Faustino Dy, Jr., her campaign slogan, “Kalayaan ng Isabela.” Her opponents claimed that she was being supported by the NPA. If so, she also enjoyed support from other sectors – the political party Akbayan, which opposed the NPA, the Catholic and Protestant churches, and most notably the Isabela electorate. She won over Dy by 40,000 votes.
If campaigning was difficult, being governor was even more so. Patronage politics was well-entrenched in the system; most of the mayors were Dy supporters and hostile to her. She discovered that the previous administration owed more than P 700 million to local banks, contractors, suppliers and local government units for financing unfinished structures, jueteng remained a stubborn problem, and illegal logging operations were rampant. She also encountered among government employees a mindset which placed their own welfare ahead that of the Isabela constituency. A health program of her predecessor which promised free medical treatment and full coverage in cage of illness was financially unsustainable.
As governor, she set her priorities – stabilizing the province’s finances, and focusing on measures to improve the income and welfare of the farmers who compose over 60 per cent of Isabela’s population. After two and a half years, she was able to pay off the debt and even report savings that would be spent on infrastructure projects. The unrealistic medical plan was replaced by Philhealth program that subsidized the hospital expenses of cardholders and their family members.
Padaca used provincial funds to subsidize the buying program of the National Food Administration, increasing the purchase price of rice and corn by P 1 per kilo. Infrastructure projects directly benefiting the farmers, such as farm to market roads, small water-impounding dams and multi-purpose pavements for drying crops were also implemented. Traders from other provinces were invited to Isabela to engage in business. Reforestation projects were started in eleven towns which are in the protected area of the Sierra Madre range.
In 2007 she ran for re-election, and won. In this second term, she intends, among other plans, to strengthen the free basic education program of the government.
In the Philippines, where cynicism over politicians translates all too frequently into a defeatist attitude towards the status quo, Grace Padaca remains a testament that one person, armed with integrity and tenacity, can inspire people to break out of the mold of passivity and take charge of their destinies.