Before midnight struck Tuesday, a day after the Philippine Midterm Elections, Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada had conceded defeat. His former running mate and former Vice Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, more popularly known as Isko Moreno, won the mayoralty race in Manila. It was not an easy campaign season for the much younger Isko who went against the former movie star, patriarch of a political family, former president and even a former mentor. But this is Isko Moreno, and nothing in his life ever came easy.
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Born October 24, 1974, Isko grew up in the slums of Tondo, Manila, along Mabuhay Street, near the long coastal road. His father, Joaquin was a stevedore, while his mother, Rosario took care of the needs of the family. “At 10 years old na-realize ko na na mahirap kami,” Isko told the current affairs program Pipol in 2012. “Kasi wala kaming Atari, wala kaming Game & Watch, yung kapitbahay namin may Betamax na.” It was not an easy life, and his father didn’t always have a job. “Sa araw araw na ginawa ng Diyos, mamimili ka lang: yung mamatay na dilat ang mata o mamatay na may hepa.” Hence, the young Isko needed to hustle. To put food on the table, he would collect pagpag, or discarded food. Sometimes they would sell pagpag to their neighbors for extra income.
As he grew older, he learned how to make more money by selling old newspapers and used bottles. But this hustle came with danger. His comrades in the streets were often high on rugby, and work often led to brawls, something Isko said he tried to avoid as much as he could. Any kind of trouble might push him away from his family’s dream: for Isko to finish high school.
His father only made it to grade four but his son would be different. College was out of the question, of course, given that the family could barely pay for the 120-peso fee for his almost-free education. “That is near to impossible,” he told Pipol about getting a degree.
There was a time his classmates would make fun of him in school for being a garbage collector—there was a time when Manila Mayor Mel Lopez had a clean and green campaign in the city and Isko, being a real trash collector, was teased by his classmates. “Mayor! Mayor!” they would call him. Still, the young dreamer could not be deterred. “Naiiyak lang minsan,” he remembered. Back then, in his mind, he would go beyond high school. He wanted to become a seaman. Eventually, he dreamed he would be the captain of a ship.
But fate had other plans.
In January of 1993, Moreno was at a neighbor’s wake when a talent manager and producer, Wowie Roxas, gave him an opportunity to be in front of a camera. He didn’t know what that entailed but as someone who had been through more frightening perils, this sounded like an easy kind of unfamiliar.
His first acting gig—if you could call it that—was for the RPN 9 teen drama anthology, Young Love, Sweet Love (1987 -1993). It was hosted by German “Kuya Germs” Moreno, show biz veteran, an entertainment impresario. In that episode, the newbie Moreno had one job: ring the doorbell.
The call time for the shoot was at 9 a.m. They shot his scene at around 7 hours later. But the long wait—in an air-conditioned room, with free food, doing nothing—was, for Moreno, pure bliss. He got 1,500 for the stint. “Aba, okay ’to!” he told himself when he got his first paycheck— which he would spend on a pair of briefs and food for his family.
Eventually, the boy’s charm and good looks would take him beyond the role of the doorbell guy. He was soon asked to audition for the seventh batch of hosts in the hugely popular variety show, That’s Entertainment. He got in, and with that success came his unrelenting rise to fame. He made movie after movie, enjoying the stream of income that he gained from his projects. But since it’s in his nature to always be on the lookout for self-improvement—or just something new to do—he stepped out of the show biz world to take a different route.
Isko first entered politics by running for councilor in 1998. It was a decision done on a whim, he admitted. He was just feeling lucky that year. He approached then Vice Mayor Lito Atienza, and found himself a slot in the race. He also found himself in the middle of campaign trash-talking, something he didn’t think would hurt him hard. The boy from Tondo was lambasted for having only finished high school. People called him, “artista lang.” Never one to raise a white flag, he used the weapons of his detractors against them. He was an artista, yes. He was “just” a high school graduate, yes. But he was also from the people. “Walang sino man ang makakapagsabi dito na alam nila ang pakiramdam niyo kapag kumakalam ang sikmura ninyo,” he told his audiences during the campaign. “Ako alam ko ’yon.”
He won that election. He was 23 years old. He served as councilor of Manila for three terms.
While he was councilor, he went back to school. He wanted to learn. He wanted to fight back and prove his detractors wrong. He, too, belonged in public service. He belonged in politics. Then he heard that his fellow artista-turned-politician mayor Vilma Santos (current leading bet in the congressional race for the sixth district of Batangas City) attended a few courses at the University of the Philippines (UP) to help her with her new role. This inspired Isko to follow suit. He headed to UP and inquired about the institution’s special programs on legislation. With the financial support of former Manila Vice Mayor Danny Lacuna, Moreno was able to take the program and finish it.
But he didn’t stop there. Moreno enrolled in leadership and governance courses at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University, and at the Said Business School of the University of Oxford.
With this kind of education in his arsenal, Isko went on to become Manila’s Vice Mayor—first under Alfredo Lim, then under Erap Estrada— for three consecutive terms. He ran for senator in the 2016 National Elections but lost.
In the Pipol interview, host Ces Drilon asked him if he dreams of becoming president one day. “Gusto ko pong maging president. Kung paano po makararating do’n hindi ko alam,” he very positively said, without any hesitation. “But I will take it one day at a time. If I’m gonna be the mayor of the city of Manila someday—I don’t know when—I’m gonna be the president of this country.”