LUCENA CITY, Quezon – Catalina Magnaya, 81, stood at her vegetable stall with a bright smile even though she has yet to reach her target sales on the morning of March 21.
Wearing a blue apron emblazoned with Sen. Grace Poe’s name, she was beaming while waiting for the daughter of her long-time idol, the late action star Fernando Poe Jr.
“Naiiyak nga ako, maigi’t naligaw siya’t nagpunta dito. Ako’y nasasayahan gawa’t anak siya ni Fernando Poe,” she told ABS-CBN News.
(I want to cry. It's good that she is passing by here. I'm really glad because she's the daughter of Fernando Poe.)
Her friends at the New Lucena Market know Magnaya, called Nanay Taling, as the biggest FPJ fan. She religiously watched his films, some more than once, and continues to watch the TV remake of “Ang Probinsyano” every night, they said.
“Mahal na mahal 'yun dito sa Lucena,” she said of the late film icon.
She recalled how the community went on a craze to watch “Perlas ng Silangan” in 1969, which was shot in Barangay Talao-Talao in this city.
“Maski sino sa amin dito gustong makita si Grace Poe kasi mahal na mahal namin si FPJ.”
(Anyone here would like to see Grace Poe because we love FPJ so much.)
Beside Magnaya’s stall, another avid FPJ fan, 62-year-old Bella Lagrosa, also eagerly awaited Poe. In the city, they’re all solid Poe supporters, she said.
“Sa totoo lang, wala pa akong benta, kanina pa. Pero alang-alang sa pagmamahal ng mga Lucenahin kay Grace Poe, maski walang benta. Sabi ko sa maningil, bukas na at wala pa si senador,” she said.
(In truth, I have not sold anything yet. But for Lucenahins' love for Grace Poe, even if there's no sales... I told the creditor, do it tomorrow, the senator is yet to arrive.)
Along the sidewalk where Poe was expected to arrive, a group of about a dozen women wore shirts bearing the words “Vendetta,” named after the group of rebels headed by the main protagonist Ricardo Dalisay, played by actor Coco Martin, in the remake of FPJ’s "Ang Probinsyano."
Inside the market, more vendors wore aprons that bore Poe’s name and number in the ballot.
In Poe, they said, they see the late FPJ. She’s helpful towards the needy and fights for the helpless—much like Dalisay and all of FPJ’s other movie characters.
Screams bellowed upon Poe's arrival at the public market, with many of the vendors eager to shake hands and even kiss the senator's cheeks, feeling as though it was also FPJ they had seen in the flesh.
The elder Poe ran in the 2004 elections, but lost to former President and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. To this day, 15 years since he died months after his defeat, his daughter believes the presidency was stolen from her father.
And Poe knows that she carries with her the legacy of her father and that the people love her for it.
Clad in her signature white polo shirt, she offered warm smiles to those who waited for her and addressed them through the public address system. She promised, among others, to push for subsidies for farmers negatively affected by the Rice Tariffication Law.
“Kaya nga nag-iingat ako, ang aking kapital ay ang reputasyon ni FPJ,” Poe told ABS-CBN News in an interview.
(That's why I'm cautious, because my capital is FPJ's reputation.)
“More than a party, more than any individual in politics, he’s the source of my capital in politics, that’s why people are supporting me. That’s why I have to honor his memory,” she said.
For Poe, her father represents “compassion for the poor, helping those who are suffering from injustice, and being a humble, kind person.”
“Kaya yun din ang dapat kong gabay sa aking trabaho,” she said.
(That's why that is also my guide in doing my job.)
That FPJ’s "Ang Probinsyano" dominates TV ratings has also been a “big” help in boosting her numbers because it refreshes her father’s memory, she said.
Having her mother, actress Susan Roces, still active in show business, appearing in product commercials with taglines such as “Wag mahihiyang magtanong” (Don't be afraid to ask) and “Tapat po sa inyo” (Faithful to you) also helps, she said.
Roces also plays a character, Lola Flora, in the hit soap now three years in the running.
The Poe brand is not the only factor pulling in votes for the senator, said Ronald Holmes, who teaches political science at the De La Salle University.
"Part of her support comes from being a Poe but one should also acknowledge that people may also support given what they know she has done as a senator," he told ABS-CBN News.
Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said FPJ remains in the hearts of many because his image of being compassionate both on screen and in person persists until today.
The lack of closure in the elder Poe's 2004 presidential bid in elections allegedly tainted by cheating boosts his daughter's present senatorial bid, said Casiple.
"Marami pa ring may pagtingin na kung... walang dayaan ng 2004, si FPJ ang mananalo. That belief translates into support for the daughter. Nadagdagan lang 'yan kasi maganda 'yung performance ni Grace Poe as a senator," he said.
(Many believe that had there been no cheating in 2004, FPJ would have won. That belief translates into support for her daughter. It was increased because Grace Poe's performance as a senator was good.)
Poe herself sought the presidency in 2016, some 12 years after her late father's bid, but lost. She conceded to the winner, President Rodrigo Duterte, just hours after the close of polling centers, as results came in.
Although Poe cannot discard her connection to her father, which is a "positive factor" in her campaign, Casiple said she has to bloom on her own since she already has her own track record as a legislator after completing one term.
"Mahirap siyang lumitaw on her own before kasi hindi naman siya politiko. Pero ngayon, hindi na siya puwedeng mag-claim na inosente siya sa politika."
(It was difficult for her to stand out on her own because she was not a politician before. Now, she cannot claim that she is innocent in politics.)
Before venturing into the Senate, Poe served as chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), promoting "intelligent media viewership" through an age-appropriate ratings system.
As legislator, Poe championed the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was approved on third reading by the Senate. She also filed the Free Lunch Program, which seeks to provide free lunch to malnourished children in all public schools nationwide.
Recently, as chair of the Committee on Public Services, Poe presided over hearings on the MRT-3 and the third telecommunications player.
Vendor Lagrosa said if Poe is reelected, she wants her to scrap the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law, which has raised prices of consumer goods, and slash passenger fares and electricity rates.
She also wants the lawmaker to push for the creation of railways that would run across Luzon, as the Philippine National Railways did before.
"Malaki ang magagawa ni Sen. Grace, lalo na kung siya ang magna-number one kasi maraming hiling ang mahihirap na kaya niyang ipatupad, alam niya. Sa tingin ko naman napaka-sincere ni Senador,” she said.
(Sen. Grace would be able to do a lot, especially if she's number one because she knows the poor's wishes and she can make it happen. I think she's very sincere.)
RUNNING INDEPENDENT, TOPPING EARLY POLLS
A constant frontrunner in senatorial preference surveys, Poe is running without the backing of a political party, as she did in her presidential campaign in 2016.
She admitted that it’s more difficult to mobilize bigger audiences without a political machinery, but having people join her campaign has been a pleasant surprise. In this setup, her friends in politics can support her without worrying about their respective parties, she added.
Her campaign in 2019, her third consecutive electoral bid, is different from the first two because expectations are bigger than before, she said.
This year, she chose to focus on those in the grassroots, touching base with people in wet markets, schools, and farming communities, and answering their questions face to face.
“Tatanungin nila 'ano bang nagawa mo? Ano bang plano mong gawin?' Kinailangan kong kumayod ng anim na taon para 'yung mga batas na ipinangakong ipapasa ay maipasa. Naipasa ko naman,” she said.
(They would ask 'what have you done? What do you plan to do?' I had to work hard for 6 years so that the bills I said I would pass would pass. I managed to get them passed.)
She believes she constantly tops surveys in the run-up to the May 13 polls because she works hard and because she is honest, which she believes is the most important trait of a leader.
“Maaaring hindi ikaw ang pinakamatalino, pero kung tapat ka, parati mong pipiliin kung ano ang sa konsensya mo ang hindi lang makakabuti sa sarili mo kundi ang makakabuti sa tao--'pag yun ang naging gabay mo, mararamdaman ng tao 'yan,” she said.
(You might not be the smartest, but if you're honest, if you will always choose based on your conscience what would be best not just for you but for the people--if you are guided by that, the people will feel it.)
Alongside Poe at the top of surveys are incumbent Sen. Cynthia Villar and former Sen. Pia Cayetano. Another woman, reelectionist Sen. Nancy Binay, has also been making the top 12 in recent surveys. Poe believes they have risen to these ranks because of the people’s need for women’s care.
“Naghahanap ng aruga ang ating mga kababayan, lalo na ngayon na ang ating Presidente ay lalaki, macho. Naghahanap naman sila ng matapang din na babae, pero siguro mas mahinahon. Pambalanse,” she said.
(Our countrymen are looking for care, especially now that our president is a man, macho. They are looking for strong women, but calmer to balance it out.)
Still, she believes even if the four of them are elected, the number of women in the 24-member Senate is too small. Sen. Risa Hontiveros is serving out the second half of her 6-year term while Sen. Leila De Lima, whose term is also ending on 2022, has been detained since 2017.
“Kulang pa, dagdagan ninyo ng babae,” she said.
(That's too few, add some more.)
“Kahit wala kaming consciously sinasabi na agenda, women naturally gravitate towards certain advocacies. For example, when it comes to children, we’re usually united towards that… First 1,000 days of a child’s life, si Risa, ako, Sen. Cynthia, Sen. Nancy. 'Pag mga ganun, magkakasama kami, kahit iba-iba ang partido namin,” she said in reference to the First 1,000 Days Law.
(Even if we don't consciously call it an agenda, women naturally gravitate towards certain advocacies. For example, when it comes to children, we’re usually united towards that. First 1,000 days of a child’s life, that was from Risa, me, Sen. Cynthia, Sen. Nancy. When it comes to that, we are together, even if we belong to different parties.)
The measure seeks to provide health and nutrition services to children during their early days of development.
POE, THE SENATE PRESIDENT?
She might be ahead of preference polls, but Poe shuns the possibility of taking the Senate leadership. Instead, she supports Senate President Vicente Sotto III's stay at the chamber's helm.
“He’s a consensus Senate president. Whether you’re in the majority or the minority, he accords you with respect,” she said, noting as well that Sotto did not allow Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who is part of the minority, to be arrested on Senate grounds after his amnesty was revoked in September.
“Personally, everyone gets along with him.”
She was surprised when asked if she was eyeing that position herself, adding: ”Wala, lalo kung andyan si Sen. Sotto, kaniya 'yun.”
(No, especially if Sen. Sotto is there, that's his.)
Sotto has vowed to campaign for all incumbent senators in their bid for re-election. This lineup includes Poe, Senators Villar, Binay, Bam Aquino, Sonny Angara, JV Ejercito, and Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, his predecessor in the Senate leadership.