To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield
SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - August 15, 2020 - 12:00am

Manila mayors are larger than life. Arguably the most visible public official, next only to presidents, a Manila mayor is more nationally prominent than any local chief executive. Is this fame (or notoriety) a qualification for the job? The man makes the office or does the office make the man?

Manila, with its storied history, has been around even before Lopez de Legazpi and Rajah Soliman. But its first elected city mayor, in 1951, was Arsenio Lacson. Only eight men have won the position in 69 years. After Lacson, Antonio Villegas, Ramon Bagatsing, Gemiliano Lopez, Alfredo Lim, Joselito Atienza, Joseph Estrada and Francisco Moreno Domagoso.

With six congressional districts to campaign in, newcomers can hardly contend. Even with deep pockets, it’s a fool’s errand to try and build up an instant machinery. Better to matriculate first on slow burn and get to know the people. Mayors Lopez and Moreno Domagoso started as city councilors and trod the vertical climb of the cursus honorum. Mayors Villegas and Atienza began as vice mayors.

The alternative is fame and name, nationally. Mayor Estrada perfected this formula, parlaying his experience and popularity as former president. He was the guest of honor who needed no introduction.

Dirty Harry. Mayor Alfredo Lim was another such lateral entry. Relatively unknown at the barangay level, he had his share of the spotlight on a higher stage. Manila chief of police, People Power PTV4 hero, NBI chief. He stood for something – the Rule of Law. Famously, his campaign slogan was that “the law applies to all.” And his brand resonated with the people of Manila.

As mayor of Manila, he left an indelible mark. In the 90s, his surveys confirmed that the No. 1 problem of the city was the deteriorating peace and order condition, driven by poverty and the illegal drug trade. People were desperate. This warrior gave them courage. Crime incidence and drug proliferation took a nose dive under his iron rule.

He was the second longest serving mayor but he was elected to the office a record four times. Also, he was the only mayor returned to office after losing an election.

Reminiscences. I first served with him on my second term in the city council. He burst onto the scene that 1992 with his vice mayor Lito Atienza, without any other candidate from their ticket winning a seat. He ran under Miriam Defensor Santiago’s People’s Reform Party (PRP). PRP was non-existent in Manila. There was no local party organization for his campaign. The way he captured power defined the way he held on to it: maverick, beholden to no one. What better way to launch a reform agenda?

At first, it was difficult to support his desiderata. His strategy to fight illegal drugs began with that infamous, spray paint shame campaign. Many, myself included, felt that it tread on dangerous ground in the human rights debate.

The urban legend of “street justice” followed him. He was fresh from a post where killing or getting killed was an occupational hazard. Through this lens you see that mere “spray painted warnings” against suspected drug pushers spoke to his fidelity to the rule of law.

He moved to clean up Manila’s red-light district. The Ermita-Malate area was a hotbed of decadence and depravity. He requested the city council for legislative cover. And the councilors closed ranks behind him. We gave him an ordinance prohibiting the operation of nightclubs and bars. The Supreme Court would rightly invalidate the ordinance. But this would come several years later. In the meantime, the crusade had a profound effect. Honkytonk establishments relocated, en masse, knowing that there was no compromise with the man. That unconstitutional action bought time and signaled the renaissance of the Ermita-Malate area.

He also led when we established the City College of Manila, later the Universidad de Manila. This was unsurprising given that Mayor Lim was a highly educated man. He had a master’s degree, a law degree and pursued a doctorate degree. He cared deeply that Manila’s underserved also get these opportunities. When with students, specially at commencement exercises, he was a different person. Outside, he was known to be stern, stoic, even brutish. But at these events, his inner spirit shone through as he emotionally recalled his mother’s struggles and the challenges he had to rise above. The tears of a hero are not a sign of weakness. It’s a reminder that they, too, feel pain. In the end, they grow even larger in our eyes.

The Manila Film Festival awards night scandal? Its immortal phrase “Take it, take it” became a staple of pop culture. The TV coverage of the awards night already shifted to commercial when the organizing committee discovered the envelope switching that had happened. The audacious perpetrators gambled that the fait accompli would be allowed to stand. Exposing it so publicly would stigmatize the city for allowing such a disgrace. While we wrung our hands thinking of the best course, Mayor Lim instantly strode onto the stage. He lifted his arms in the air and firmly spoke the words: “Hold on, an injustice has been committed.” And the rest is history.

His creed was simple: to right what was wrong.

One equal temper of heroic hearts. He was nearing his 70s but his stellar performance catapulted him into a grander orbit. A run for the presidency, stints as DILG secretary and senator. Then, in 2007, nearing 80, that successful comeback to the office of mayor. 2019, in his 90s and he was still very active. A role in city governance as senior statesman was assured. Mayor Moreno Domagoso looked forward to his sage counsel.

He had no intention of retiring. We knew he would serve until he could serve no longer. Like Tennyson’s ageing Ulysses, he would not yield: How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

In the end, Alfredo Lim died the way that he had lived. He died with his boots on.

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