How does one achieve longevity in public service? For Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon, who at 72 years old has devoted over half his life to government and humanitarian endeavors, it has all to do with one’s roots.
Born to an American father who passionately chose to become Filipino and serve the Filipino, and a mother who genuinely had a heart for the poor, Gordon witnessed very early on compelling examples and inspirations of patriotism, courage, empathy and action, which he took with him the very day he began his public life.
Born to James Leonard Gordon [who served as the second municipal mayor of Olongapo and its first when the town became a city]and Amelia Juico [a businesswoman and philanthropist who also became city mayor in the late ‘60s], Gordon first set foot on the political path when he was elected as the youngest delegate to the 1971 Constitution Convention. He was still pursuing Law at the University of the Philippines at that time and the experience steeled in him the paradigm his parents had always lived out—that the relationship of the citizen to the state is defined not simply by his rights but equally by his obligations.
Armed with firsthand knowledge on what every Filipino’s life should be, he ran for Mayor of Olongapo City in 1986 and won the people’s mandate. In the same year he was elected governor of the Philippine Red Cross, and wholeheartedly welcomed the added responsibility to be able to come to the aid of communities, towns and even entire provinces, when disasters strike.
In the face of dramatic unemployment in his city with the removal of the US Naval Base in neighboring Subic, he is one of the people who pushed for the creation of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) in 1992 and became its founding chairman. He led and achieved the most successful base conversion in the region, duly recognized by international media.
Always willing to serve the country in whatever capacity he is needed, Gordon also accepted the Tourism Secretary portfolio from 2001 to 2004, and successfully introduced the concept of branding at the agency to market the country around the world with the iconic “Wow Philippines” campaign.
At the end of his appointment under the Arroyo government, he won a Senate seat in 2004, authoring major laws, most of which aimed to dramatically transform the political and economic landscape of the Philippines.
In 2010, he ran for the highest position in the land, and while he lost his bid to Benigno Aquino 3rd, the recent 2016 elections showed the Filipinos’ trust and confidence in his track record with an overwhelming fifth-place win among 12 Senate seats.
Now nearing his fifth decade in public service, Senator Richard Gordon sat down with The Sunday Times Magazine, and generously talked about what keeps him going in what is certainly a demanding and challenging life as an elected official.
In this one-on-one interview at his Senate office, he is surrounded by a picture of his parents, alongside images of the courageous Lapu-Lapu, the chivalrous figure in Spanish literature Don Quixote, and memorabilia from historic events in the Philippines—all daily reminders of the examples he should continue to pursue and his enduring responsibility to the flag and its people.
“As you can see, my family and roots are very important to me,” he told The Sunday Times Magazine. “They’re why I’m still here to this very day.”
In the following Q&A, the accomplished senator talks more about his vocation, what keeps him ticking, and how he hurdles the difficulties and controversies of public life to fulfill this noble and intrinsic mission for as long as he can.
Can you talk more about your parents and how they inspired you?
They were simple folks who were outstanding. My mother was a high school graduate; my father finished first year college. When the war broke out they got married and made themselves independent. They started a business and they came big.
They weren’t land owners; they were entrepreneurs, but beyond that God had been good to them in terms of rewarding their work ethic. They shared with the poor and the vulnerable. My mother adopted hundreds of babies and raised them. Up to now, whenever I go to General Santos, somebody will approach me and say, “I was adopted by your mother.” Some of them are already abroad and many of them have done well.
My father, on the other hand, died for this country. Although he was born an American—he’s a meztiso—he chose to be Filipino.
With that you have to know your roots and work hard with what you’ve been given. They showed me that you’ve got to give back and you should have a cause bigger than you—that cause is humanitarianism.
So really, what keeps me going are these simple things my parents taught me—to love my country, to help the needy, and to aim high and work for them with a good work ethic and values.
You’ve had a very colorful career in public service, and each time, you clearly had the goal of making a mark be it as Olongapo’s mayor, Red Cross governor, SBMA founder and senator. What are you most proud of in all these duties you pursued?
Like I said, my parents taught me to aim high. I’ve loved and love all the jobs I had, and each one has a highlight.
The first is changing Olongapo from “Sin City” to “Model City” by raising police accountability through ID systems, proper health and sanitation, waste management and the strict observance of color-coding in public transport.
There were great times in Subic, and great times too in Tourism. The Philippines was placed on the international tourism map by actively marketing the Philippines in tourism expositions and road shows using the campaign Wow Philippines.
When I entered the Red Cross wala kaming pera [we didn’t have any money]. At the Red Cross I used my assets—I used my PDAF [Priority Development Assistance Fund]. I built the building of the Red Cross; I got the ship of the Red Cross; we have 140 ambulances now. Akala ng iba blood lang eh [people think it’s just a blood bank but]we have built 80,000 homes already after [Typhoon] Haiyan alone and another 65,000 in other places.
You know, if God gives you an opportunity, you suck the nectar out of it. Nothing good is easy to get, you have to work hard for it. [The word] “hard” is not in my vocabulary—you need to have persistence.
How do you juggle your time being Senator and Chairman of Red Cross?
I’m chairman but I’m a volunteer. I don’t get paid but I enjoy it on top of my work as Senator because it’s a cause. It reinforces my life and makes me happy. I’m not trying to show anyone I’m a goody-goody, I enjoy it because of the meaning it gives me.
I’ve been with the Red Cross for more than 50 years now. My mother and my father both worked there too. They built the first blood bank in Olongapo and I modeled its four-storey building. My life has been like that.
You do things not because you want to be seen doing it. You should have persistence, work hard and never be satisfied. I am happy God has given me the strength in any undertaking I’ve had and I’ve done well.
You ran for Senator in 2004, President in 2010, and then again for Senator in 2016. What made you decide to return to the Senate? Did you feel you had unfinished goals in the Upper House?
When I ran for president, I don’t think I had enough people really believed that I could win because I had no money [to fund my campaign]. ‘Gusto ko sa kanya pero sayang lang ang boto ko kasi hindi siya mananalo.’ [I want him as president but I won’t waste my vote because he won’t win without the money]. So that’s what happened.
The Senate, on the other hand, is a present and a future tense. You need experience here and that’s your past tense. A Senator is a senior statesman and he must have seen a lot of things in the country’s history. The Senate is not for newbies; you have to earn your right to be there. So [in 2016]lot of my friends told me I have to come back because I am needed for the future. But I didn’t believe that and said I would contribute [to society]anyway wherever I am. But do I believe it now? Yes I do!
There are many who admire you on how you handle the hearings of your committee chairmanship, such as the Dengvaxia issue. And yet there are others who accuse you of putting up a “one-man show.” What do you have to say to them?
In the Blue Ribbon committee, every time I pursue an investigation, they’re always in aid of legislation. And I try very hard to do my job the best way to the point that I have been criticized many, many times. They say I dominate, and of course I dominate! I am a prosecutor in the Blue Ribbon. You have to find out who is doing wrong. And if the other Senators do their homework, I let them speak. But it’s got to be on point. In fact, if they did their homework, they can speak longer than me as long as they can prosecute continuously. If somebody does that and he’s doing well, as Chairman, I’ll tell them, go ahead.
What is important is to be able to show the public your timeline—where the investigation is going—because that’s how you know how to search for the truth. You have to do your homework, and you have to admit, ang dami kong nahuli [I caught many guilty parties and irregularities].
Yung iba kasi tinanong na tatanungin pa ulit, dadating para lang makita sa TV na nagtatanong. [There are some who ask questions that have already been tackled just to be seen on TV]. Yun ang nakikita na nangyari nung wala pa ako sa Senado [In the past, that’s what happened in hearings when I wasn’t back in the Senate] and I don’t want that to happen anymore because there has to be a heuristic notion to get to the bottom of the issue.
While I’m there I am a lawyer, I am trying to get the guy who is obviously lying and kung bibitawan ko mawawala yung [and if I let him go I will lose]momentum. So patawarin na lang ako ng tao [so I just have to ask the people’s forgiveness]because when I’m there, it’s me lawyering for the people of this country because that’s my task in the Blue Ribbon. These cases are complicated. Hindi lang basta basta yan.
If you don’t want me for Senator, fine. The position is not mine, I just borrowed it. But when I am there, I am going to do my best to serve the country. And when you don’t like it, sorry, I did not meet your expectations. But I just want to be judged on the merit of my work. I cannot please everybody, but the important thing is, am I sincere in trying to find out the truth? Yes. Do I work hard? Oh yes! And my staff, they work hard too. Everybody has to work as a team. That’s the story behind the story.
Do you see yourself running for President again?
I will do what God wants me to do. God is right here in my conscience. And when God says you have to make a decision, you have to make it. He’s not going to make it for you.
You know why I ran for president in 2010? Alam kong napakalakas ni Noynoy, namatay ang nanay eh [I knew then Nonoy would be difficult to beat. His mother, former President Aquino just died]. How can I beat that? I didn’t even have the money to buy time.
But when it came to the debates, talo sila [I beat them]. Maybe hindi nakita ng marami [not many people saw the debates]. They didn’t see kung sino ang may laman yung sinasabi [who talked with substance]. That’s what’s needed to get the job done. But it’s better that you fought hard instead of giving up because in fighting hard, your rivals will respect you. But if you give in, they will never.
How do you want the Filipino people to remember you?
I will make sure they remember me because I will write a book [laughs].
How I want to be remembered? Do I want to be remembered? It’s up to them. It’s a very weak person who cannot recognize the merit of a man. And he’s a weak man when he tries very hard to be recognized. Remember, acta non verba—actions not words. You should let your actions speak for themselves.
How does a multi-tasking man like Dick Gordon unwind at the end of a busy day?
First of all, your busyness will always amount to something. My office is the last to leave here in the Senate. I don’t think I am inconsiderate and I think I have a good team. You’ve got to keep everybody on their toes. Like I say, I was blessed with the five “Fs” —I have focus, I am fast, friendly, flexible and forward-looking. I lead my team to be that way.
I read when I have spare time. I watch television. Most of the time when I go to hearings I am five or 10 minutes late, but when I start, it goes on and on. That’s why I have the longest hearings here in the Senate.
How do you make time for family?
Recently I went to the confirmation of my grandchild. If my daughter asked me if I can go, I will go. She asked if I could speak before the class and I said I would if I can be there. Of course, my wife complains all the time, but I try.
It’s my wife who suffers when I have little time for the family, but that’s part of this life.
I love my wife, and even if I have my short comings, we’re really, really happy together.
COVER PHOTO BY RUSSELL PALMA