By Tonette Orejas
Porac, Pampanga — It’s a Friday afternoon and Adonis Simpao is in the company of more than 20 public school teachers. The meeting, which the teachers requested three weeks ago, is finally pushing through in Barangay Pias here.
Simpao apologizes for not finding time much earlier, bowing his head as he entered the backyard of the host-teacher. It turned out that more than a month before the actual campaign period, this Liberal Party candidate in Pampanga’s second congressional district already has a full schedule.
“I get invitations to talk in small crowds of teachers, farmers, workers, students, parents, out-of-school youth, traders, laity, senior citizens, drivers, pastors,” the 41-year-old architect says.
By all measure, that’s quite a feat considering Simpao’s unenviable and abject situation. But whether the residents reach out to him because they support him and want to know what he has to offer or because they are merely curious to meet the modern-day David is another matter. And whether he stands a Chinaman’s chance to win is an entirely different (sob) story.
To say that Simpao is facing an uphill electoral battle is the understatement of the coming May election. His fellow cabalen – and the whole nation, for that matter – believe that the battle for the congressional seat in the second district of this province is finished long before it began. Simpao is making history for battling an incumbent President in an electoral contest for a lower position that is unheard of in our history. Come May 10, there won’t be an iota doubt that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will be the “hands down winner,” in the words of Rey Roquero, executive director of the ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD party. (There are two aspirants aside from Simpao — Feliciano Serrano, an engineer and Filipinas Sampang, wife of a doctor – who are both running as independent candidates.)
It’s all-go for GMA
Last Jan. 28 the second division of the Commission on Elections officially lowered the boom on Simpao’s aspirations when it dismissed the petition of Akbayan Rep. Rissa Hontiveros to disqualify Mrs. Arroyo from running for a congressional seat in Pampanga and ruled that the President was not prohibited by the Constitution to run under a lower position. Hontiveros has asked the Supreme Court to reverse the poll body’s ruling.
Hontiveros also claimed that the President, by refusing to vacate her post after filing her candidacy for Congress, will be violating the constitutional provision regarding “equal protection of the law.”
“As current President, she has all the powers and resources as well as access to it that will definitely prejudice the chances of any opposing candidate in any electoral competition against her,” she said.
According to Hontiveros, the President spent around P459 million in infrastructure projects in her district last year. “That’s the most compelling reason why she should be disqualified from running. As the highest official of the land, virtually no one, not a sitting legislator and especially not an ordinary civilian like Mr. Adonis Simpao, can compete with the resources that she has at her disposal,” she said. Malacañang has disputed the figure cited by Hontiveros.
Simpao says he is not surprised by the poll body’s decision. “That was expected. That division and the Comelec are known not to decide on issues of public interests,” he said.
He concedes that Mrs. Arroyo has undue advantage because as sitting President she has almost unlimited access to government resources. She visited the second district 50 times during the past year (that translates to one visit per week), handing out various dole outs and infrastructure projects.
Somebody’s got to do it
Despite the great odds, Simpao is unperturbed and bent on pursuing the fight to the end.
“Kailangang ating libutad (Somebody has to take the fight),” he said in the local dialect, explaining why he decided to file his candidacy a few hours before the deadline last December. “The second district needs a true representative. If Mrs. Arroyo really loves us Kapampangan, why didn’t she run as governor instead? She seems to have other interests, like being Speaker or Prime Minister.”
Back to the huddle in the yard, the teachers began sharing their thoughts on the May election before grilling Simpao on his platform on education, agriculture and environment.
His answers are direct. “As a legislator, I will bring and protect the people’s interests in Congress because I have no interests other than theirs, especially the poor. Public funds will be used properly, without graft. Infrastructure projects will be done based on the needs of the people, not because I or any contractors want to make money,” he explains. “I will serve with fear in God and respect for His commandments.”
Simpao talks more like a community organizer than a candidate. Humble and dressed modestly in an inexpensive shirt, he listens intently as his cabalen detail their problems and aspirations. His friends Eddie and Janet Ayen share that a number of times Simpao was mistaken for a worker because he usually slings a hand towel on his shoulder.
Rich girl, poor boy
Unlike President Arroyo who was born into power and wealth, Simpao, the eldest of 11 children, came from a poor family. His late father Pablo farmed a small plot of Riceland and built deep wells to support his family. His mother Cecilia ran a sari-sari store and sold vegetables she grew in the backyard for the daily baon to school of the children.
He was barely 16 and in third year high school when he chaired the chapter of the League of the Filipino Students at Don Honorio Ventura College of Arts and Trade (DHVCAT) in Bacolor town. The militant group led the mass walkout of students at the school to protest the murder of labor leader Rolando Olalia, a native of Bacolor, in 1984. They also held marches and pickets against the National Service Law and tuition fee hikes.
“It was easy to understand poverty and fight for an end to this form of injustice because we were poor,” he says.
After finishing one semester of an architectural course at DHVCAT, his parents asked him to stop schooling for lack of money. Not wanting to be a burden to the family, he worked as a waiter in a restaurant in Olongapo City and later as a janitor in a bank. After finishing a short course in computer programming, he joined a construction firm, serving as timekeeper, warehouseman and laborer. With his meager income, he resumed his architecture studies, enrolling in evening classes at the Technological Institute of the Philippines in Manila. In 1992 he was thrust again into the LFS leadership at TIP after the chapter chair went missing. He presided over the student council from 1993 until his graduation in 1994.
After short stints at Allied Bank and F. J. Jacinto Roofing, Simpao partnered with his four engineer brothers – a geodetic, a civil, an electrical and a sanitary engineer – to set up a company in 1998 offering design, construction and contracting services to local clients. His modest income has enabled him to build for his wife and three children a modest bungalow that remains unfinished until now, seven years after he started it.
The Guagua native emphasizes that there is nothing personal about his fight with President Arroyo. “Hindi si Pangulong Arroyo ang kinakalaban natin kundi ang sistemang dala ng mga tradisyunal na pulitikong tulad niya,” he explains.
He agreed to enter the political fray when at the last minute no one had wanted to challenge Mrs. Arroyo. He said Pampanga Governor Ed Panlilio was frantically urging prospective candidates until the last two hours before the deadline for the filing of candidacy. “Naghanap tayo ng puwedeng itapat sa Pangulo, pero walang gustong lumaban hanggang huling minuto. Kaya kinailangan nating manindigan.”
Simpao is fully cognizant of the odds he faces – “money, machinery, connections.” But he remains undaunted and even professes a healthy dose of guarded optimism.
“I decided to make a go to prove a point that we Kapampangans are standing up to her,” he says. “We are not a coward people. Kapampangans are decent people. . . We Kapampangans proved we are on the side of good in 2007. I believe this will still be the case in 2010.” (In 2007 former priest Among Ed Panlilio trounced two close allies of Mrs. Arroyo – then Gov. Mark Lapid and Lubao Mayor Lilia Pineda.)
The coming electoral contest, according to him, is not about him but a “test for Kapampangans. . . Will they stand up for what is right and good and do the country a favor? That’s worth seeing this May.”
PHOTO: Adonis Simpao (left) with Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Satur Ocampo.