A worthy change of heart for the ‘accidental senator’


Since setting foot in the political arena, Senator Maria Lourdes “Nancy” Sombillo Binay has been subjected to online ridicule for all sorts of reasons. More prevalent in the first few years of her public life, she was “bashed”—to use the social media jargon—for issues more legitimate than others, meaning to say there were those that were either inane or downright cruel.

At the onset, Binay was blasted for running as a political greenhorn, aiming no less for a senate seat on her first and only candidacy so far in 2013. A fact she cannot deny, the daughter of former Vice President Jejomar Binay, the AB Tourism graduate of the University of the Philippines countered detractors with information that she had served as personal assistant to her father and mother Dr. Elenita Binay during their successive terms as Makati City mayors, and therefore attune to the workings of government.

Senator Maria Lourdes “Nancy” Sombillo Binay

Despite doubts on her competence, Binay, who scoured the entire nation to campaign, finished fifth overall in the senate race, amassing an impressive total of 16,812,148 votes for a rookie.

The title Honorable Senator of the Republic of the Philippines, however, failed to spare her from more bashing, and in fact made her more vulnerable to criticism—the kind that unfortunately speaks volumes on the absence of common decency in the social media phenomenon.

Senator Nancy Binay (center) admits she is not used to being at the forefront of public service but maintains that her early exposure to politics and experience in working behind the scenes unknowingly prepared her for a change of heart in running for government

Almost nitpicked for her every move, the duly elected senator was made a laughing stock over her infamous “hot air balloon” gown to the 2014 State of the Nation Address, and even for silver clutch bag in 2016, which netizens childishly likened to leche flan molders.

Most uncalled for were memes [online images and videos that poke fun at a personality or circumstance]pertaining to her skin color, which, no matter one’s political affiliation, has nothing to do with anyone’s personality or capability.

Through all these acts of public humiliation, however, Sen. Nancy Binay, has earned the respect and admiration even of her harshest critics for she has been able to laugh at them, poke fun at herself, and most of all, proceed to perform and deliver a senator of the land. Rather than strike back at her bashers or allow the ridicule to affect her disposition, she emerged the bigger person with much to show for her last five years as a public servant.

In fact, a quick online search on Binay these days will yield results that have nothing to do with memes or online attacks of the past but articles on her definitive stand on such national issues like the tragic Dengvaxia vaccine; the confusing P5-coin that puts public utility drivers and small sari-sari stores at risk with their income; practical suggestions in pursuing the Boracay problem; and her very recent confrontation with popular blogger and Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, whom she directly challenged to choose between her appointed position and controversial blog. These—not to mention her stylish transformation specifically at this year’s SONA—have all earned the approval of the general public, which to be sure, includes her bashers in the past.

Sport as ever, it was even the senator herself who poked fun at her skin tone just this month when she feigned relief that her fellow senators have decided to order black robes in place of maroon for a pending impeachment trial.

Since winning a senate seat in 2013, Binay has filed bills and resolutions advocating the interests of women and children, the youth, elderly, and housing for the poor, among many others

“Sobrang ok sa akin yung kulay. Kasi kung yung dating kulay baka may pumunas sa akin [I’m very happy with black because if the robes were still maroon, someone might wipe me with a handkerchief],” Binay joked, calling to mind past memes likening her to the maroon-clothed Black Nazarene of Quiapo Church.

But even with “peace time” on social media from bashers today, The Sunday Times Magazine, in a one-on-one conversation with Senator Nancy Binay, managed to ask the strong-willed woman to look back at her “colorful” foray into politics, and share how she got through the very tough times, and ultimately go from walloped to winner with grace and dignity. After all, she is approaching the final stretch of her first term as senator, which ends in 2019, making it an opportune time to assess if her proverbial journey has all been worth it thus far.

The Sunday Times Magazine (STM): You are about to end your first term as the “accidental senator” [Binay replaced businessman Joey de Venecia in UNA’s senate slate in 2013]. If asked to look back at this life-changing chapter in your 44-year history, can you say that you made the right decision to go into politics?

Senator Nancy Binay (SNB): Right nga ba? (Laughs). Seriously, yes, I think I made the right choice because at the end of the day helping people is one of the biggest factors I considered when I decided to run and I think I did that in this capacity.

I also have to say, I am going on my sixth year as a senator but it has honestly not yet sank into me that I am now a senator and that I am in the national limelight because I came into this directly from being a private citizen.

STM: Perhaps among your batch of senate neophytes, you have been one of the most scrutinized. From the very beginning, there were those who questioned your capabilities and made an issue of your inexperience as a first-time politician thrust into the senate. What can you say to those who said this now?

SNB: While I may have not held any other elected position in the past, I wouldn’t call myself as a neophyte in politics. Funny as it may sound but before I was even born, nasa tiyan pa lang ako ng mommy ko, my orientation has already been politics. That’s because, while she was still pregnant with me, she’d visit my dad, who was then in prison for lawyering for human rights victims.

And then I was born a year after Martial Law. As such, during my growing up years, family bonding for us would consist of attending protests at Liwasang Bonifacio, or supporting our dad when he files cases in court on behalf of farmers or visiting labor groups who are on strike.

I also grew up being surrounded by the likes of Attorney Rene Saguisag and Joker Arroyo. All in all, these experiences helped me become politically aware ever since I was young.

Add to those my father’s appointment as mayor of Makati after the Edsa Revolution in 1986, which continuously exposed me to the world of politics.

Maybe people questioned my capabilities because I never occupied any elected position but I’ve long been exposed to it and I’ve also worked work with family members who are in the position, albeit behind the scenes. And I think I’ve proven my worth now.

STM: With most of your family already in the field of politics—your siblings included—why did it take you in a sense a longer time to decide to run for public office?

SNB: I never really aspired, even as a child, to become a politician. I guess that’s because I would always opt to work behind the scenes. I don’t know how to explain it but I just felt I was more effective that way. So I worked for my mom when she served as mayor of Makati, for my brother when he was still a councilor and my dad, when he became the Vice President.

In 2012, Joey de Venecia backed out last minute from joining the United Nationalist Alliance [UNA, the party of her father]’s senatorial slate. In fact, UNA filed October 1 of that year without Joey because he already advised that he was no longer running.

The party could have continued with one missing candidate, but the “council of elders,” as we call them [comprised of her father, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and current Manila Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada]wanted to have a complete senatorial line. They approached other possible candidates but they declined then they saw that my name was coming out in the surveys already so they asked my dad if I could run.

Of course, he didn’t want me to run in the beginning, perhaps because he knew how it would be a shock for me—a private citizen suddenly running for a national position. But he was outvoted by the rest of the party.

After that, I consulted my family because besides helping out behind the scenes of my political family, I am a mother of four children and I’m a wife—that’s me first and foremost before being Senator Nancy Binay.

I had to ask my kids because I know what it takes to be a child of a politician and it’s not easy—they are thrust into the world of politics indirectly. But they said yes, so I took that as one factor.

During this time also, I told myself, I can be selfish and just stay behind the scenes. I mean, my kids will still be OK whether I’m in politics or not, but you know at the end of the day, they are still part of a bigger picture. They are part of the upcoming future. It would be useless if they’re OK but the rest of their surrounding is not and I don’t want to see them move to another country to escape the situation here. So that was also one of my considerations.

‘Being able to help my countrymen as senator is definitely worth it,’ says the 44-year-old legislator

Then my husband gave his blessing as well as my mom and dad after making sure that I didn’t feel forced into running.

So yes, by the time I filed my candidacy, I was 100-percent sure that being a senator was what I wanted to do, and I had the backing of my whole family.

STM: Bashed even as a senator, even for your clothes, amid all the negativity—some of which have bordered on the cruel—who or what has been your strength?

SNB: I actually find the memes amusing. In my mind, who am I that these people would devote time and effort to find a photo, lay them out and post them online?

There was a time amid all of this when my daughter would approach me and show which among the memes were closest to my dress—I mean, our scene at home during those times was like that. Nothing really personal, and I never took any of them personally too.

If anything I was more concerned with my designer during that first SONA. When I wore that gown in 2014, I called my designer immediately to apologize because his creation would not be a laughingstock had I worn it properly, I guess.

STM: What else have you had to sacrifice in being senator besides enduring the criticisms?

SNB: Number one of course would be time because I was a full-time mother before becoming a senator. I used to always bring my kids to school every day, but now I can’t do that. To make it up to them, I catch them at dinner every night at home, free my weekends to be with them, or if I really have an out-of-town trip to make, I make it a point to bring them.

Actually, just yesterday, I was looking at their photos [lined up on top of her office desk]and I was thinking how small they were when that was taken during my oath- taking in 2013. My twins back then were just three and now they are already nine.

In the beginning they would complain, “You’re leaving again! Where are you going?”

But now, they don’t complain so much; they just ask when I would return whenever I leave. I think it also helps that there’s technology now, I can get in touch with them as often as possible because I really wouldn’t want to miss out their growing up years.

As for health, people have noticed that I have shed off pounds but that’s because I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism last year. I’ve been taking medicines and so far the results are normal. But the doctor assured me that my hyperthyroidism was a result of my genetics rather than what other would presume as stress.

I think the stress level only shot up during the presidential campaign of my dad but we are in a better place now.

STM: How is the former Vice President these days? With more time in his hands, has the family been able to catch up on the many years you lost him to public service?

Is it really more time? Parang hindi kasi busy pa rin siya. (Laughs)

I guess we could say he has more time because he doesn’t have to get to work so early but his schedule is just as full. He’s back to teaching, he’s taking seminars and classes on arbitration—it feels like he went back to his practice, so to speak.

Siguro, ang mas bago is that now that he is no longer the vice president, he has more time to relax and spend with us. Unlike before, when we would go out of town, I remember he would just fit into his schedule the vacation part because most of the time, he would leave us wherever it is that we went to and mingle with the locals. He would go to the market, eat meals with them then go back to us.

So I don’t recall seeing him actually enjoy, let’s say the beach, back in those days. Ngayon, he would really swim whenever we take vacations—simple changes like that.

But we’ve always been solid as a family—it was his rule that every Sunday, even when he was still mayor, we would all have lunch or dinner as a family.

STM: What are the most valuable lessons you have learned about yourself and in general from the last six years?

SNB: I have to admit the first three years of my term was really difficult—those who were attacking my family are the same people I see almost every day in the Senate. And as much as I try to avoid them, I still come across them.

During those times, I sought the advice of Senator Greg [Honasan] and Tito Sen [Senator Vicente Sotto], who are also in the minority like me. And they would say, here in the Senate, even if the senators have personal issues on the floor, they have to act as if they are not affected.

True enough, through the years I see senators who one day would look like they are ready to tackle each other, but the following day are just as nice to each other like nothing happened. I realized that’s because the senate is a collegial body, and we cannot work separately.

Another lesson I learned here in the senate is the tough part of politics—there are things that you don’t want to do but you have to for several purposes. For example, you have to get signatures from colleagues for a committee report or to fulfill your legislative agenda you have to get along with them.

I’ve seen how local executives work and now how legislative does and I can say, the dynamics are totally different.

STM: Have all the sacrifices and challenges you’ve been through as candidate and senator worth it?

SNB: Yes. I guess nasa dugo ko na yung public service even when I was just helping out behind the scenes. The only difference now is I am in front of it all. But being able to help my countrymen is definitely worth all of the sacrifices.

STM: Finally, the national elections are just around the corner. What are your plans for 2019?

SNB: I can seek reelection but I am still thinking about it. I know people are now anticipating, guessing who will be running but I would rather focus on the work we still have here because there’s so much more that needs to be done for our countrymen.


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